Burdensome rules make it a nightmare for same-sex couples applying for benefits from Milwaukee Public Schools

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Tina Owen and Jennifer Morales have been a couple for seven years. -hoto: Facebook

Equality advocates were overjoyed when the Milwaukee Public Schools decided in September 2008 to extend employee health benefits to the same-sex partners of city school workers. The decision was hailed as a significant local civil rights advancement.

But for the approximately 100 employees who were affected by the new policy, the benefits were a long time coming. Partner benefits were not implemented until November 2011, and then only after $65,000 of taxpayer money had been paid to a contractor to determine the best approach for implementation, despite the fact that such benefits are routinely provided by hundreds if not thousands of government agencies and private companies whose procedures could have served as models.

Even after MPS gave the benefits the go-ahead, the process for applying was labyrinthine and arduous. Other government bodies and private companies, including the law firm Quarles and Brady and Aurora Health Care, the state’s largest employer, simply require partner registration under Wisconsin law to qualify beneficiaries.

But Chris Toth, director of insurance and risk management for MPS, decided that the requirements for registering as domestic partners was not rigorous enough to weed out fraudulent applications. The $65,000 study aimed to establish more stringent application procedures.

“I find it insulting,” said Jennifer Morales, whose spouse Tina Owen is co-founder of The Alliance School, a charter school that offers safe haven for students who are bullied and harassed at other schools. “It devalues the registry and puts an undue burden on a group of employees and almost relegates them to second-class status.”

Morales and Owen are a high-profile lesbian couple who have appeared on the cover of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Morales is a former school board member.

Still, despite the visibility of their relationship, the couple was required to supply an astounding amount of information in order to win approval for MPS benefits.

Each woman had to produce copies of her life insurance policy and will, to prove the two were mutual beneficiaries on both. They had to produce a copy of their mortgage to show their home was in both names. They had to show copies of their children’s birth certificates and a credit card statement or checking account under both names.

“By the time we’d finished it all, I think we’d submitted maybe 50 pages of documentation,” Morales said. “Meanwhile, all a heterosexual couple has to submit is a marriage license.”

Morales said the experience was an unwarranted intrusion into her family’s personal life. “When you think about the kind of information that’s in someone’s will, it’s not the kind of thing you want to share with the public,” Morales said.

After finally getting approval, Morales and Owens moved into a new home. MPS then required the couple to prove they were domestic partners at the new address.

“There were a lot of tears and frustration,” she said.

MPS also set an astronomical value on the benefits.

Domestic-partner beneficiaries are taxed on employee health benefits due to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bans the government from recognizing same-sex relationships. MPS declared the value of the benefits at $20,000, twice the amount set by other local governments and school boards. The amount creates an excess tax of nearly $3,700 for each employee and $755 per policy for the employer, according to Equality Wisconsin.

Heterosexual married couples pay no taxes on such benefits and must simply present a marriage license to qualify for them.

In May, Morales and others reported their frustrations to a committee of the school board, which responded by ordering an investigation of the situation and a report addressing the concerns that were raised. But when the committee finally presented its findings at a July 26 meeting of the school board, gay and lesbian advocates were astonished.

Rather than recommending changes, the report primarily defended the unwieldy and unusual procedures already in place without explaining how the original investigators arrived at the process.

“The report flatly failed to address the concerns of those who spoke (in May) and falls short of suggesting any modifications that would actually result in significant changes to the process of obtaining benefits,” EW responded in a letter.

EW also took exception to some inaccurate information contained in the report, including the statement that the paperwork required by MPS is consistent with that required by the state, county and city of Milwaukee. EW provided a chart illustrating the significant differences.

EW has repeatedly asked for a copy of the original report on which the MPS partnership application procedure is based, Burns said. Despite submitting multiple requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act, MPS has refused to comply with the law.

Activists were heartened when the school board rejected the administration’s report at the July 26 meeting and sent it back to yet another, undisclosed committee to be reviewed and overhauled.

But despite the encouragement, four years after MPS decided amid much hoopla to extend benefits to the same-sex partners of employees, few have had the means or the stamina to obtain them.

“After observing this for several years and trying to be objective about it, I can only conclude that it must be because of homophobia on the part of several people at the central office,” Morales said. “And I don’t make that accusation lightly.”