Thursday, December 24, 2009

Domestic partner benefits in North Carolina - and why they matter (again!)

Charlotte, North Carolina, is the seat of Mecklenburg County's government. On December 15th, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners approved a package of limited domestic partnership benefits for same-sex partners of county employees. The benefits include sick leave and medical insurance. The Board considered findings by the County Department of Human Resources. Citing a February 2009 "Fact Sheet" of the Employee Benefits Research Institute, the Department found that employers have adopted domestic partner policies not only to promote hiring and retention of employees, but to advance fairness - a consideration that one of the Commissioners endorsed.

In its "Domestic Benefits Study," the Department also identifies "participating North Carolina jurisdictions." According to the 12/16/09 Charolotte Observer article,
In approving the policy, Mecklenburg joins six other jurisdictions in the state that currently offer the benefits. The others are Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham, Greensboro and Durham and Orange counties. Four of the communities offer domestic partner benefits to both same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples. But Mecklenburg would only offer them to same-sex couples, as do Greensboro and Durham.
Another Commissioner would have preferred extension of employment benefits to partners of employees, regardless of sexual orientation, presumably if the partners met the approved policy's qualifications. (Eligibility requires same-sex partners "to live together in a long-term relationship, be financially interdependent and not be married to anyone else.") I understand law professor Nancy Polikoff to favor extending employer benefits to a broader range of partners, including, for example, siblings who live together.

Charlotte's city council will consider whether the city's nondiscrimination policy requires it to follow the County's example by also adopting domestic partner benefits. In this November 2009 bulletin of the UNC School of Government, Diane M. Juff concludes that
North Carolina local government employers appear to have the authority to offer domestic partner benefits to their employees and their employees’ same-sex spouses or domestic partners of the same or different gender.
Some supporters of marriage equality discredit domestic partnerships as pretexts for institutionalizing second-class status for same-sex couples. But as local and state goverments adopt domestic partner benefits to remedy discrimination, will they do more than immediately benefit eligible same-sex couples - an important goal for the affected couples? Will they also ultimately increase public awareness of the unfairness of relegating same-sex couples to a status inherently inferior to marriage, whether for the purpose of limited benefits or benefits at near parity with marriage? Incrementalism, whatever it's legal (and other) failings, may have the long-term potential to shift public opinion further in favor of marriage equality.

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