Milwaukee County supervisors have launched a renewed push to extend health insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of county workers.
Seven supervisors, joined by representatives from public, private and religious groups, formally announced the effort at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center on July 7. They described the issue as one of smart business and basic fairness.
“This is a pro-business move, and we’re taking a page out of the book of some of the largest private-sector employers in Milwaukee,” said Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. “They use this tool to recruit the most talented employees in the marketplace.”
Aurora Health Care, the state’s largest employer with 31,000 workers in the Milwaukee area, has offered domestic partner benefits since 2005. Six of the 10 Fortune 500 employers in Milwaukee also offer such benefits.
Dwight Morgan, senior vice president of human resources, told reporters that Aurora’s domestic partner plan “has worked remarkably well” and had no “appreciable impact” on the company’s bottom line. He said the cost represents less than 1 percent of Aurora’s employee benefit expenditures.
Morgan said the benefits help Aurora attract employees from a larger pool of talent, which makes the company stronger. “It’s a good business decision, but greater than that, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Dimitrijevic said the issue of fairness sometimes gets lost in discussions about partner benefits. She said it’s unfair to expect gay and lesbian employees to do the same work as their heterosexual counterparts without receiving the same workplace benefits.
“I want to stop people from this obsession about the numbers,” Dimitrijevic said. “If anything, we should be obsessed about equality. I think people should be focused on the fact that we’ve been treating some of our employees unequally.”
In 2009, a measure calling on county government to investigate the cost of providing domestic partner benefits passed the 19-member county board with 13 votes. But former County Executive Scott Walker vetoed it, claiming the measure would cost taxpayers $4 million – a figure that was vigorously disputed by experts familiar with the issue.
County officials estimate it will cost about $700,000 to offer the benefits based on the experience of other companies and government entities that offer them.
The City of Milwaukee pays about $252,000 a year for its domestic partner benefit plan. Only about 30 of the 3,500 City of Milwaukee employees eligible for the plan use it, according to city officials. All city workers are eligible except for those employed by the police and fire departments, whose unions have never sought the benefits.
The county board fell one vote short of overriding Walker’s domestic partner veto two years ago after Supervisor Lynne De Bruin changed her original “yes” vote on the issue. This time around she’s listed as a co-sponsor of the resolution.
The resolution has nine co-sponsors, Dimitrijevic said. Ten votes are needed for passage. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele strongly supports the measure.
The measure could be referred to the full county board as early as July 28.
Under the proposed benefit plan, same-sex couples would have to register with the county clerk as domestic partners. To qualify for the benefits, they would have to be at least 18 years old, share a common residence and not be related any closer than second cousins.
Unmarried opposite-sex couples would also qualify if they provided a signed affidavit saying they meet the age, residence and blood relative rules. Proof of a shared residence, such as a lease or mortgage signed by both partners, would also be necessary.
In addition to Dimitrijevic and De Bruin, the other co-sponsors are Gerry Broderick, Eyon Biddle, Peggy Romo West, Jason Haas, Nikiya Harris, John Weishan Jr. and Willie Johnson Jr.