Thomas Barker, vice chairman of Miami Beach’s gay Business Enhancement Committee, recently made the case to other committee members for expanding city employees’ domestic partner benefits program. Last week, suffering from a sudden case of shingles while visiting family in Orlando, he himself became beneficiary.
“I had a high fever and neurological pain all over. I got sick in Animal Kingdom and went straight to the emergency room, where they kept me for four days,” said Barker, 29. “If I didn’t have the benefits, I probably would have gone to the emergency room, but I would have racked up tens of thousands of dollars in medical bill that I couldn’t afford. Or I wouldn’t have gotten the care I needed because they would have kicked me out of the hospital.”
Barker owns a small marketing company with one other employee and can’t afford group insurance of his own. He’s had insurance through the city of Miami Beach since he and Robert Rosenwald, a senior assistant city attorney, became registered domestic partners on Nov. 3, 2011.
Miami Beach has offered domestic partner benefits for city employees since 1998. Seven years later, the commission required that most contractors doing business with the city also offer equal benefits to domestic partners.
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“The Equal Benefits Ordinance governs companies that contract with the city, that they not discriminate and provide equal benefits for domestic partners as they do for married couples,” said Rosenwald, 43.
Because the U.S. government doesn’t recognize gay marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships, private and public employees who receive health insurance benefits for their partners must pay federal income tax on the value of the premiums. Recently, some businesses and governments have begun to pay for the extra tax.
Last November, Hallandale Beach became the first city in the nation to offer tax reimbursements for employees in domestic partnerships. This week, city commissioners unanimously voted that vendors with five or more employees and city contracts worth $50,000 or more also offer domestic-partner benefits.
In March, Bay Harbor Islands voted to offer domestic partner benefits to city employees. A few weeks later, commissioners agreed to also pay the federal taxes, becoming the first Miami-Dade County municipality to do so.
On May 6, West Palm Beach agreed to reimburse partnered employees for the federal tax.
“It’s not a gay issue,” said Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. “It’s a pay issue.”
Miami Beach is poised to do the same next month.
Many Florida colleges and universities — including the University of Miami, Miami Dade College and the University of Florida — also offer domestic partner benefits. Florida International University gives a stipend to domestic partners equal to cost of health insurance for a legally married husband or wife.
A common concern about offering partner benefits is company cost. It’s usually low because so few employees, both gay and straight, actually sign up. Among the reasons: Many are single; some LGBT employees are closeted; others have partners who are covered by their own health insurance at work.
Miami Beach has about 3,500 employees and only 16 with domestic partners take the insurance. Office Depot, based in Boca Raton, reports similar findings. With 9,154 employees, only about 50 take insurance for domestic partners.
Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights group, since 2002 has tracked companies that offer benefits and protections to LGBT employees with its annual Corporate Equality Index.
“We need to have consistent equal protections under the law for all workers, including those that are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender,” said Deena Fidas, deputy director of HRC’s Workplace Project.
“In the last few years, I’ve seen a significant uptick in Florida businesses with regard to implementing inclusive nondiscrimination policies and equitable benefits,” Fidas said. “We’re seeing more Florida companies offering protections based on gender identity. You’re seeing more companies with what’s called ‘transgender inclusive’ health coverage. When medically necessary, if a transgender person needs to access mental health counseling, hormone therapies and sometimes surgery, that as part of the overall employee benefits package, those medically necessary procedures are covered.”
Several large companies with big presence in South Florida receive perfect 100 scores on HRC’s index.
“Office Depot as a publicly traded company wants to support its entire client base,” said Frantz Tiffeau, the company’s senior manager of diversity initiatives. “For reasons of doing the right thing, it makes sense to support [the LGBT] community. Members of employees’ families, the employees themselves. It makes good business sense. If they feel that support from a company, they’re going to support that company, as well. Most corporations and counterparts I deal with, it’s part of a standard companywide benefit in global corporations based in the U.S., both public and private.”
Tiffeau, who is based in Houston, said that “we’ve had employees say they only came to Office Depot because of the 100 percent HRC rating and what it meant to them.”
American Airlines has received a 100 score every year since HRC began rating companies, spokesman Bob Witeck said.
“Twelve years later, their culture is now invested in doing it. It’s a no-brainer,” said Witeck, a Washington, D.C.-based communications consultant who specializes in the gay marketplace. “And It’s bigger than just LGBT. It makes [American Airlines executives] sensitive to how that perception is and other kinds of groups and demographics.”