Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized in New York, at least a few large companies are requiring their employees to tie the knot if they want their partners to qualify for health insurance.
Corning, I.B.M. and Raytheon all provide domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners in states where they cannot marry. But now that they can legally wed in New York, five other states and the District of Columbia, they will be required to do so if they want their partner to be covered for a routine checkup or a root canal.
On the surface, this appears to put the couples on an even footing with heterosexual married couples. After all, this is precisely what they have been fighting for: being treated as a spouse. But some gay and lesbian advocates are arguing that the change may have come too soon: some couples may face complications, since their unions are not recognized by the federal government.
“Even with the complications, many people will want to get married for the reasons people want to get married,” said Ross D. Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. “But from our perspective, to hinge something as important as insurance for your family to what is still a complicated legal matter for same-sex couples doesn’t seem to be a fair thing to do.”
He said that there were a variety of reasons — legal, financial and personal — that companies should keep the domestic partnership option at least until gay marriage was recognized at the federal level. Legally speaking, getting married could create immigration issues or it could potentially muddy the process of adopting a child. In some instances, he added, an employee may work in a gay marriage state but live in a neighboring state that does not recognize the marriage. The couple may want to wait to marry until they can be legally wed in their home state.
“There are certainly reasons why a couple may not wish to marry,” added Camilla Taylor, marriage project director at Lambda Legal. “People with certain immigration statuses might want to think very carefully before getting married. There are some types of visas that are meant to be temporary, and if you get married to someone who is a citizen, it could flag your renewal application and reflect your more permanent decision to stay.”
When it comes to adopting a child, couples may run into trouble if they are trying to adopt from a place that restricts same-sex married couples from adopting. Having one parent adopt while still single may be easier. “If you want to be able to answer honestly in paperwork, multiple interviews and background checks, then you won’t want to get married,” Ms. Taylor said, adding that many foreign countries ban adoptions to same-sex couples.
Marrying could also have serious implications for couples who relocate to a nonmarriage state, and ultimately decide to split up. Getting a divorce can be complicated, since one member of a couple may have to return to the gay marriage state and live there before their split can be completed.
The employers making the changes said they spoke regularly with their gay and lesbian employee groups and planned to phase in the requirement. Corning, based in Corning, N.Y., said it would offer a reasonable grace period, though it had not completed the details.
“After waiting so much time for that right, we want them to have the opportunity to enjoy that,” said Christy Pambianchi, a senior vice president for human resources at Corning, which put the policy into effect in New Hampshire and Massachusetts when gay marriage became legal there. She said employees did not raise concerns about the requirement. “They are delighted,” she said.
Raytheon, based in Waltham, Mass. — another state where gay marriage is legal — said it would give employees several months to comply with its marriage requirement. Like Corning and I.B.M., the company said domestic partner benefits would remain in states where couples cannot marry (Raytheon also has an exemption for active members of the military, so they are covered for benefits without having to marry. Getting married violates the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which is being phased out).
I.B.M., based in Armonk, N.Y., said its workers would have up to a year to get married to maintain their current benefits.
At least for now, these companies seem to be in the minority, though it is unclear whether more employers will follow their lead. Eastman Kodak, based in Rochester, said it would continue to offer domestic partner coverage to both same-sex and opposite-sex partners.
“My impression is that there has been lots of discussion about dropping domestic partner coverage when marriage is first opened up to same-sex couples, but very few employers actually end up taking this step,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, legal director at the Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation law and policy issues. “Some employers initially believe that it is fairer of them to impose the same marriage requirements on all employees, regardless of sexual orientation. But then employees and others explain that employees with a same-sex life partner remain in difficult circumstances due to the continuing federal discrimination.”
Whether same-sex couples marry, they will still be responsible for paying federal income taxes on the value of their partner or spouse’s benefits since they are not recognized by the federal government as an economic unit, unless the person covered is considered a dependent. Couples will not owe those taxes at the state level in places like New York that recognize gay marriage.
But it should become easier for gay employees who marry and live in New York to obtain insurance for their spouses. (There are an estimated 42,000 same-sex couples in New York, according to the Williams Institute.) Not only are the same-sex spouses of state workers eligible for spousal coverage, but the same goes for many people who work for private employers.
There could be some exceptions, however. Employers who do not contract with an insurance company but instead pay for health benefits out of their own assets — so-called self-insured plans — are not subject to the state’s insurance laws but are governed by federal law.
Most large employers have self-insured plans, said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, a membership organization that focuses on health policies for large employers. That means they can choose to cover same-sex employees, but they do not have to. While virtually all large company plans cover legal spouses, she added, some companies offer domestic partner benefits only to gay employees who do not have the option to marry. (Some companies also extend the benefits to heterosexual unmarried couples.)
“I am getting a lot of questions about what other employers are doing,” Ms. Darling said. “I see a movement coming where marriage will be a factor where marriage is possible.”