Two Questions for the Pgh Mayor’s LGBTQIA+ Advisory Committee

I have a few questions about local governing and LGBTQ issues. I will be sharing these directly with the members of the Council whom I personally know. I’ve asked if I could attend a meeting to discuss my concerns, but was informed that the Department of Personnel would not permit me to do so.  Earlier this year, I shared some advice with the members of this body, but I’m not sure how to go about assessing impact after only nine months.

Pittsburgh Mayor's LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council
Photo: Facebook

First, the City of Pittsburgh does not offer transgender health benefits to employees. I am not personally aware of any trans employees, but I have heard that there is at least one person. This is a contractual issue to be addressed with Highmark and other providers for the non-unionized employees and then introduced into the contract negotiations for the unionized employees. The insurers have the policies. The City has an existing procedure to offer new health benefits and to offer benefits to new employees. Cost can’t be that prohibitive given the small number of people who would take advantage of this.

When can we expect to see these benefits rolled out? If not for the new calendar year, what is the delay? How is it being addressed?  IMHO, this tangible investment in trans employees speaks far more than a ‘will of council’ that has zero enforcement authority.

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Second, the City of Pittsburgh does offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex and opposite sex employees and has done so for 20+ years. There are about 60 of us who access these benefits. In 2015, Allegheny County terminated their domestic partner benefits citing the SCOTUS decisions making marriage equality the law of the land. The problem is that the land hasn’t quite accepted this law and we have ongoing struggles to participate as full and equal citizens in our nation. Marriage equality and health care are under attack.  See Pidgeon v Turner for more information on how this impacts dp benefits.  (See above and remember the trans community is under the greatest attack.)

In 2013, the City passed a law that requires contractors who enter into a contract of $250,000 or more with the city to offer same-sex domestic partnership benefits to its employees.

Do the current contracts between the County and City violate this law? It could be easily remedied by the County extending domestic partner benefits to same sex and opposite sex employees, both unionized and non-unionized. But the Mayor can’t control that. He is in control of administrating contracts with the County, so I am asking if there is a conflict and how it could be resolved? Should the Controller be involved, both of them? If the County is violating City law, that’s a serious County problem, too.

In my experience, the folks on the inside will typically blame the process and someone else in that process for problems. It is rare for someone to be honest enough to say that this or any issue isn’t a priority.

When I gave my advice in January, the first bit was this:

  1. Learn. Learn how a municipal government works and how it fits into the larger system of our Commonwealth government (and federal, too.) Learn how the cities are classified and what that means for their powers to do things. Study the City structures and read the budgets closely. Familiarize yourself with how an ordinance becomes law (and how an ordinance is different from a bill.) Review funding streams. This is boring, routine stuff but it can mean all the difference when it comes to deciding where to invest your energy. Pittsburgh as a City cannot do the same things that Philadelphia can do because of real legal constraints that would have to first be addressed.

I truly hope at least a few members of this Advisory Group have spent some time learning how the system of 3,200+ employees works. I’m not being a smartass when I say that. I studied political science and my partner has worked for this body for 17+ years. People can spend a lot of energy trying to change something that simply cannot change because of the state constitution. Similarly, there are always areas for improvement on the local level. Not everything requires a Talent City endorsement and a spiffy suit. Some things the regular folks can figure out just by paying attention.

Let’s be honest – not much has changed in this region. We have exactly three municipal nondiscrimination ordinances (Pittsburgh, Erie, Allegheny County) and while folks in Johnstown and Butler City are trying, it is fair to say that there has been zero trickle outward effect. We have nothing statewide except second parent adoption and marriage equality, both of which came through the courts. We have no women in statewide or federal office from this region and we lost one women at the City Council table. Maintaining the status quo is our only real hallmark. Barely. Pittsburgh is not the progressive leader, we are the only progressive anything. And given the status of our water, affordable housing, racial injustice and preponderence of head-burying responses to all of the above … there’s reason to be concerned.

Earlier in the year, I was absolutely terrified that the federal threats to ACA combined with the County Fitzgerald (flawed) interpretation of the law would leave us without health insurance. I received assurance that no changes were planned and I took a very deep comfort in that, not only for myself but the other City employees. But I don’t want to have to be afraid each year that this will be the year they make the change. The Texas court ruling makes me uncomfortable to put it best. So I can be honest with you and admit that I think the extension of transgender health benefits and the clarification of the contract issue with the County would have a personal win for me – expanding insurance to more people tells me something about our Administration.

But it is September and those health insurance contracts for 2018 are on the table, if not already signed. Will we go another year without trans coverage or will this be the year?

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