UR announced on Wednesday, Oct. 12 that its domestic partner policy, which was revised last June, has been further modified to include limited circumstances concerning situations in which unmarried same-sex domestic partners will be allowed to gain from University benefits.
Marriage between same-sex couples was legalized in New York State on June 24 when Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Marriage Equality Act was passed by the New York Senate by a vote of 33 to 29, making it the sixth state in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage.
In response to this development, UR’s Office of Human Resources sent a message to faculty, staff and retirees of the University on Aug. 1 explaining that it would be changing its policies concerning the eligibility of domestic same-sex couples to qualify for University benefit plans and other University programs, such as health care benefits.
There were 84 employees or retirees who received same-sex domestic partner benefits as of July 24. The new policies were drafted after the Marriage Equality Act was passed.
“The intent of the changes is to treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples consistently,” the letter stated.
According to Michele Hill, manager of faculty and staff benefits, only one complaint was received following the letter on Aug. 1.
Senior and President of the Pride Network Melanie Davidoff believes that the intent of these changes has been upheld.
“I think the University is being fair in that both straight and gay couples are being treated the same,” she said.
Despite this, belief, Davidoff still had some reservations about these new policies and expressed concern that they could end up putting pressure on same-sex couples to tie the knot.
Assistant Professor of Surgery and co-chair of the Pride Alliance John Cullen had a similar outlook.
“I can totally understand where the University was coming from, but I thought it was a hasty move,” he said, referring to the short time between the Marriage Equality Act being passed and UR’s change to these policies. Despite this hastiness Cullen did believe that UR is “definitely doing [its] best.”
Despite this he does not believe this issue can be closed yet.
“When you look at the bigger picture there [are] still issues that need to be addressed,” he noted.
But why the change?
Hill explained that after the Marriage Equality Act was passed it was evident that the way in which the University defined “domestic partner” was no longer accurate, and that the employee benefit plans and HR policies could not be applied anymore.
Same-sex couples had to be married if they wanted to enroll in dependent coverage under benefit plans that the University offers. Those who were not married would no longer be able to enroll their same-sex domestic partners or children of those partners in the plans. The new policy went into effect on July 24, but couples already receiving benefits would continue to receive them until June 30, 2012.
The revisions outlined in the Oct. 12 letter explained specific circumstances in which couples in same-sex domestic partnerships would be allowed to retain University benefits.
The letter stated that if “significant, imminent detriment” would be inflicted upon the University employee and his/her same-sex partner if they married, then they would be eligible to request a hardship exception to the Aug.1 policy revisions. The letter also specified that these hardships would have to be issues that would not arise in an opposite-sex marriage.
These revisions were implemented due to conversations that commenced after the Aug. 1 letter that expressed concerns about whether harm could be placed on University employees because of a lack of legal protections in other localities.
“If employees can demonstrate that they would be harmed by taking the steps to marry, then the University will hear those cases fully,” Hill said.
According to Hill, there are currently no further plans for revisions to these policies and no requests have currently been made for hardships exceptions.
“We believe our announcement on Oct. 12, 2011 clarifies the University’s response to the change in New York State law,” she said.
One hardship was possible discrimination that could occur if an employee’s partner works or resides in a state that does not guard against discrimination of sexual orientation.They may be eligible for an exception if they are under the impression that they will suffer discrimination in a same-sex marriage. The second hardship listed was if a same-sex couple believes that marriage could hurt their prospects for adoption.
Davidoff was appreciative of this adjustment.
“[It] is a necessary exemption to make while the country slowly becomes more accepting of the LGBT community,” she said.
Jeffrey Runner, an associate professor in the linguistics department, has been in a domestic partnership for 16 years. In the past, his partner was covered under the benefits plan Runner received as a University employee. The two are now at a crossroads — get married or find Runner’s partner an alternative form of insurance.
“I’m still trying to decide what we’re going to do,” Runner said. “If we get married it’s because of this.”
Hill maintained that the University does not intend to put pressure on couples to get married though.
“The University’s intent is not to pressure people to get married,” she said. “That is an individual and very personal choice.”
Although he claimed that it felt like UR rushed into these new policies, Runner also noted that he did understand the reasoning behind the decision, and that regardless of the outcome of the Marriage Equality Act, he was still “completely thrilled” that same-sex marriage is now legalized in New York State.
“I feel pressure, but I don’t feel that they’re putting pressure on me,” he said.
Regardless of the fact that UR has already made adjustments to its new policies, Runner believes there is still work to be done. He explained that instead of requiring same-sex couples to marry to gain benefits just as opposite-sex couples do, both kinds of relationships should be allowed to acquire benefits in a domestic partnership.
“I don’t think the University should be deciding what kinds of domestic partnership relations their employees have,” he said.
Hill maintains that the University’s goal is to help and ensured that “there were several weeks of internal discussions about how to respond to the new marriage equality law.”
“Our main concern is to treat all employees equally,” she said.
Goldin is a member of the class of 2013.