Baldwin, Pocan introduce domestic partner benefits bills

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Tammy_Baldwin_official_portrait_113th_Congress

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. - PHOTO: Courtesy

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, and Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, have introduced a bill to extend employee benefit programs to cover the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees to the same extent as those benefits cover legally married spouses of federal employees.

The measure is titled the "Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2013" and, according to a news release, it would put the federal government on par with a majority of Fortune 500 companies.

“We’ve made great progress for committed, same-sex couples in America, but we still have work to do to move freedom and fairness forward,” Baldwin, America's first openly gay or lesbian senator, said in a statement. "This bill helps provide federal employees and their domestic partners equal access and opportunity to the benefits that businesses across our country are already providing. It’s time for the federal government to lead as an equal opportunity employer and I’m proud to work across the aisle with Senator Collins to advance that leadership."

Collins, in the release, said, "This change is both fair policy and good business practice. The federal government must compete with the private sector when it comes to attracting the most qualified, skilled, and dedicated employees. Among Fortune 500 companies, for example, domestic partner benefits are commonplace. According to the Office of Personnel Management, nearly 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including some of our top federal contractors, extend employment benefits to domestic partners."

A growing number of U.S. corporations, as well as state and local governments and educational institutions, have extended employee benefit programs to include domestic partners.

Nearly 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer health benefits to employees’ domestic partners and more than 8,000 private-sector companies make such benefits available to employees’ domestic partners, as do the governments of 18 states and at least 150 cities and towns, according to the senators' offices.

Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, who is openly gay, has introduced companion legislation in the House, along with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, and Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia.

Pocan, who co-chairs the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, said, “In a year of milestones for the equality movement, the federal government must continue to lead and ensure equal rights and benefits for all its civil servants. Passage of our bipartisan legislation will remove discriminatory practices that punish certain federal employees merely for whom they love and where they live. As the private sector has shown, policies that promote equality are not only the right thing to do, they also allow you to compete for the best and brightest employees."

Ros-Lehtinen, who co-founded the caucus and who has tried to lead her party toward supporting LGBT equality, said, "The federal government still has much work to do. This is why my colleagues and I will present this bipartisan bill to ensure that employees in same-sex domestic partnerships have the same rights and protections as heterosexual couples."

Connolly, in a news release, added, "I often hear that the federal government should be run more like a business. Well, from Boeing to GE, America’s leading companies have spoken loud and clear in recognizing that no organization can remain competitive in terms of attracting and retaining great talent while discriminating against same-sex couples."

Under the legislation, a federal employee and his or her same-sex domestic partner would be eligible to participate in federal retirement, life insurance, health, workers’ compensation and Family and Medical Leave benefits to the same extent as married employees and their spouses. Such employees and their domestic partners would likewise assume the same obligations as those that apply to married employees and their spouses, such as anti-nepotism rules and financial disclosure requirements. 

Baldwin first co-sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives in 1999 and served as the lead House Democrat on the bill from 2007-2012, before leading the effort in the Senate.

The Obama administration already is moving to make sure that gay and lesbian federal employees who are married receive equal benefits, but in many states federal employees cannot marry a same-sex partner. The bill only applies to federal employees working in states where marriage equality is not recognized.