UPDATED: Allegheny County Will Terminate Domestic Partner Benefits on June 30

As we explored last year, Allegheny County plans to eliminate domestic partner benefits for LGBTQ employees effective June 30, 2015. Heterosexual employees were never offered access to these benefits.

From the County Communications Director, Amie Downs:

[This] is correct and those employees will be reminded/given notice again of the policy.

Eliminating domestic partner benefits is unfair and unreasonable as a policy decision. One year of marriage equality in Pennsylvania has not been sufficient time to create any real “fairness” between same-sex families and opposite sex families.

This issue of fairness seems to be a real sticking point. But it isn’t fair (or real) to think that one year of access to one civil right can offset decades of not having access to that civil right. People built their lives, legally and financially, on the premis that they could not get married. Those decisions and the complications can’t be undone at the drop of a hat, at least not for everyone. Getting married requires planning far beyond the wedding.

It stuns me a bit when people think I’m making that up. Why would I make up oppression? If you think life is better for all the LGBTQ folks in Western Pennsylvania, just take a closer look at the discourse around Pridefest and white gay male privilege.  Or revisit what happened at McGuffey High School, just 30 minutes outside of Downtown Pittsburgh.

The landscape is not fair for Allegheny County employees. Marriage creates a public record and can be used as a basis of discrimination against all LGBTQ employees outside of Allegheny County. They travel to Cranberry Township for dinner and can be denied service. The spouse of the employee applies for a job in Finleyville or Uniontown – they can be turned down simply for being LGBTQ. Intrafamily hostilities and rejection can escalate, especially involving custody arrangements or access to vulnerable family members.

For proof of these barriers to “fairness”, the County need only turn to its own internal Department of Human Services which has a LGBTQ liaison and lots of data about the realities LGBTQ residents – including County employees – face on a day-to-day basis. Marriage equality hasn’t changed the landscape for homeless youth, aging community elders or families living in poverty. Not in a year.

The mistake Allegheny County made was in not extending domestic partner benefits to opposite sex couples, too. That’s the original intent of the concept – to create a legal mechanism to recognize alternative family structures, not simply a holding pattern for people waiting to get married. The City of Pittsburgh has offered domestic partner benefits for decades to both same-sex and opposite sex families. Among a workforce of more than 3500, this has impacted not quite 60 employees. The County had five LGBTQ employees signed up for domestic partner benefits last year so it is clearly not an issue of financial savings. Even with the understanding that the not all of the County unions had been offered this benefit, it still factors out to be a minimal cost when you consider the scope of the Counties health insurance plans.

Another area where this could come back to haunt elected leaders is any further consolidation efforts between the County and the City. When 911 was consolidated, City employees became County employees and lost access to domestic partner benefits. That’s unconscionable and then-Councilman Peduto and Controller Lamb had previously pledged to prevent any further consolidations if domestic partner benefits were not available. If the County goes ahead with their plans, this will be an issue the next time a clerk or a frontline worker faces the prospect of losing benefits. And that will end up costing the County taxpayers money.

Please note that the City of Pittsburgh went on the record last summer with plans to maintain domestic partner benefits which are accessible to unionized and nonunionized employees.

I’m still hopeful this can turn around and be a win/win for employees and residents.  There’s no fairness issue, there’s no significant cost issue, and there’s the potential to save money in the long-term.

If you’d like to weigh in on matters:

Email the County Chief Executive

Email the DHS LGBTQ Liaison

Email the County Human Relations Commission

The fair thing to do is to keep domestic partner benefits and extend them to opposite sex couples who are unmarried. It is not too late to treat all employees with fairness and respect.

UPDATE – a few hours after this posted, I received this email from Amie Downs, the Communications Manager for the County. I’ll just let you come to your own conclusions. I’m waiting for a few official comments before I share *my* thoughts on what those two employees might be thinking or feeling.

Allegheny County Domestic Partners