Among the first tangible signs that Florida government has accepted that gay couples can be legally married: Same-sex spouses of state employees are now eligible for state coverage for health insurance and retirement benefits.
“Employees whose marriages will be legally recognized in Florida as of Jan. 6, 2015, have a qualifying status change event window between Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, through Friday, March 6, 2015, to enroll in a family plan,” reads a memo to state agency and university personnel officers and benefit coordinators from Suzetta Furlong, operations chief of the Florida Department of Management Services.
Furlong wrote the memo on Tuesday, hours after a federal judge’s stay expired — along with Florida’s 2008 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Also Tuesday, state retirement director Dan Drake notified Florida Retirement System members they could now include their legal same-sex spouse as a beneficiary for their retirement.
The state employed almost 162,000 people full time in 2013, according to U.S. Census figures.
“God, I hope nobody is surprised that state officials now are following the judge’s order. That’s their duty,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which represented LGBT-rights group SAVE and eight same-sex couples who sued Florida to recognize their out-of-state marriages.
“This is what our case was all about, affecting the lives of real families and real people in Florida,” Simon said. “It was always all about protecting and strengthening families. Health insurance, pensions, all the things for which opposite-sex couples get married to and enjoy. They are implementing what they've been ordered to do.”
On Aug. 21, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Tallahassee ruled the state’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional and ordered state officials not to enforce it. Despite last-minute attempts by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to keep Hinkle’s stay in place, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to expire Monday night.
Shortly after 11 a.m. Monday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel, who in a separate case last July also declared the ban unconstitutional, lifted her stay and married the first two same-sex couples in Florida. The rest of the state followed at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
Until now, Florida state agencies and universities didn’t offer insurance, retirement or other benefits to same-sex spouses or domestic partners, though many local governments do.
“There are many, many, many cities and counties across Florida that provide benefits to registered domestic partners, including health insurance, family leave. It’s different in different places. Pension benefits are not provided universally, but many cities do,” said Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, one of the plaintiffs along with six same-sex couples who wanted to marry in the Miami-Dade court case.
Pollitzer, who himself married his longtime partner, Christopher Boykin, Tuesday night at home in North Miami, called the state benefits announcement “enormous.”
“All employers throughout Florida, public and private will provide benefits to all married couples on an equal basis,” Pollitzer said. “Public and private businesses must for the purposes of benefits treat same-sex and opposite-sex couples in exactly the same way. And the failure to do so is a violation of the law.”
Last week, Lakeland-based Publix announced the supermarket company would provide health insurance benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Florida state employees say they are ecstatic to be able to add their same-sex spouses as insurance and retirement beneficiaries.
“I’m thrilled. I didn’t want to be shocked because I’m just grateful the state is finally recognizing us,” said Tom Bendle, HIV Counseling and Testing Coordinator at Florida Department of Health.
Bendle and Jeff Bray II, partners for 15 years, were among the first five same-sex couples legally married Tuesday in Tallahassee.
Bray, an office assistant and PhD student at Florida State University, has his own health insurance through the university system. The men now must decide whether it makes financial sense to keep their current insurance plans or become a dependent on his husband’s plan.
For Jerry Edwards and David Luke, there’s no question what they’ll do.
Edwards, 71, a retired Southern Baptist minister, will become a beneficiary on Luke’s insurance.
“It’s going to save me money,” said Edwards, who is currently insured by Medicare. “I have had cancer for eight years and I have a $6,000 shot three times a year. I pay 20 percent of $6,000. Under the state plan, I pay $60 each time.”
Edwards and Luke have been partnered for 25 years. They married last year in Vermont.
“Our marriage became legal at midnight,” said Luke, 53, who works for the Department of Management Services. “We didn’t have to do anything. We came back from our marriage and put a copy of our marriage license in my personnel file, so I’ve been ready for this. I told them that when this stuff was ready, we wanted to be in on it.”