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After Same-Sex Marriage, Do You Still Need Domestic Partner Benefits?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 14, 2015 3:58 PM

Just last June, the Supreme Court recognized the same-sex couples' fundamental right to marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. It was a landmark decision and a triumph for gay rights advocates, but many corporations had embraced gay and lesbian equality long before the Supreme Court, offering spousal benefits to employees' domestic partners. In 2014, more than a third of all workers had access to domestic partner benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, are domestic partner benefits still necessary?

The Uncertain Future of Domestic Partnerships

Domestic partner benefits began as a way for companies to demonstrate their inclusivity and help attract progressive-minded candidates. Where gay marriage was prohibited, employers would provide health insurance, sick and family leave, retirement and other benefits to domestic partners.

Now that marriage equality is nationally recognized, however, some states are getting rid of their domestic partner registries and civil union systems. After Washington State legalized gay marriage, for example, it began converting most domestic partnerships to marriages.

Some corporations, too, have rolled back their domestic partnership benefits in light of marriage equality. Verizon, Delta Air Lines, IBM, and Corning, have all rescinded domestic partner benefits, according to The New York Times. Verizon even went so far as to give employees just a few months to chose whether they would marry, and continue getting shared benefits, or not.

Pros and Cons of Domestic Partnership Benefits

The jury is still out on whether domestic partnership benefits will stick around, though the trend seems to be to drop them in favor of traditional spousal benefits.

The advantages of rolling back domestic partnerships benefits are obvious: it saves money, though hardly tons of it. Domestic partnership benefits usually cost about one percent of an employer's healthcare plan. Having a marriage-only policy could help reduce the overall costs of employee benefits, as some domestic partners will refuse to get married.

The cons are equally apparent. Employees may resent being pressured to marry in order to retain benefits. In states where there is no employment discrimination protection for LGBT workers, employees may be hesitant to "out" themselves with a public marriage license, according to the Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. Advocates for the rights of the unmarried have argued that domestic partnership benefits provide important protections to workers, regardless of the sexuality of the partners.

Of course, companies need not offer spousal or partner benefits at all. There's no legal requirement for companies to offer benefits to spouses or partners and Obergefell doesn't change that. However, whatever policy employers decide on, whether it's an inclusive domestic partnership benefits policy or a more limited marriage-only system, employers should enact it without regard to their workers' sexual orientations.

This July, the EEOC announced that any sexual orientation discrimination counts as sex discrimination and, at least in the Commission's eyes, is prohibited under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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