Cover Story: Benefits for the New Family

Corporations are recognizing what has already changed

Nov 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

When Andi Adkins and her partner decided to expand their family several years ago, the senior financial analyst for Procter & Gamble knew that, along with children, come not only increased responsibility but also increased expenses.

Eventually giving birth to three children between them, the lesbian couple believed it would be in the kids' best interests if Adkins kept her job while her partner became a stay-at-home mom and devoted more time and attention to them during their early years.

The cost of health insurance, though, proved to be a financial hurdle far greater than even the savvy Adkins had expected. In the mid-1990s she joined a group of her fellow gay and lesbian workers at P&G in pressing the personal care and household products manufacturer to offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples and their children.

"I felt like, with a great deal of integrity, I had created my family and it wasn't recognized by my employer or the majority of the world, and I thought it should be," Adkins says. "My opinion is my family is just as good as your family, and they had no health insurance. With my partner deciding to stay at home and raise the kids, she was having to pay exorbitant rates."

The P&G employees formed a group called Gable and approached senior management staff about expanding benefit coverage.

"It took awhile for the company even to want to be engaged in a dialogue," says Gary Wright, a former Procter & Gamble manager involved with Gable. "The initial reaction was kind of mixed.

There were some people who were surprised there was even a gay community at P&G."

Credit the weekly
After almost six years of pressing for change, the company began offering domestic partner benefits for employees who were part of same-sex couples. Much of the change can be attributed to A.G. Lafley, who became the company's CEO in 2000 and already had become convinced of the need for expanding coverage. Even before he took the company's helm, Lafley encouraged Gable and coached the group on how to achieve its aims within the corporate structure.

"We were able to change the minds of senior management, particularly once we told them individual stories of how it was affecting people," Wright says. "Before he became the CEO, we just didn't have the consensus or the highest level champion, but we were getting it close. Once he got in, he told them to get it done."

Procter & Gamble offers the benefits to both same-sex and opposite-sex, unmarried couples that have lived together for at least one year and meet several criteria. They include the intention to remain domestic partners indefinitely, both people are either jointly responsible for each other's welfare and financial obligations or the domestic partner is primarily dependent on the employee for care and financial assistance and neither party is married or legally separated from anyone else.

Robyn Schroeder, a P&G spokeswoman, says expanding coverage fits one of the company's guiding principles, which is "to protect employees and their dependents in time of need."

"Employees in traditional and non-traditional relationships have the same need to focus on the well-being of their families," Schroeder says. "As a result, we want to provide them with the same access to P&G benefits."

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), a group that advocates for gay and lesbian rights, the first U.S. employer to offer domestic partner benefits was the The Village Voice, the weekly newspaper in New York, which began the practice in 1982. A decade later there were fewer than two dozen U.S. companies that offered "spousal equivalent" benefits to their gay employees' partners. In 1992 computer software giant Lotus Development Corp. was the first publicly traded firm to offer such benefits.

Nowadays, more than 5,400 private corporations, colleges and governments offer domestic partner benefits, the HRC says. A 1997 survey by KPMG Peat Marwick found that 13 percent of U.S. employers extended health care benefits to domestic partners, and the number has consistently grown since that time.

A more recent survey found that 4,285 U.S. employers offer domestic partner benefits. Of those, 145 are Fortune 500 companies; 3,872 are private companies, non-profit organizations and unions; 155 are colleges and universities; and 113 state and local governments. They include such companies as Aetna Life & Casualty Insurance, American Express, AOL Time Warner, AT&T, Bank One, Coca-Cola, Gap Inc., General Motors, Honeywell, McGraw-Hill, Motorola, Nike, Paine Webber Group, Viacom Inc. and Xerox Corp.

The market's influence
The American Civil Liberties Union notes that employee benefits comprise about 40 percent of total employee compensation. As a result, married employees who receive benefits for their spouses are, in effect, paid more than their co-workers with unrecognized partners, the group states.

P&G isn't alone among Greater Cincinnati-based firms in offering the benefits, although precise statistics are difficult to obtain. One firm that offers the benefits is Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy's and other retail chains.

"We obviously have a very diverse workforce and serve a very diverse market, and we felt like this was an appropriate thing to do," says Jim Sluzewski, a Federated spokesman.

Sluzewski declined to offer details about qualifying for the benefits.

"That's between us and our employees. Our policies are not made public," he says.

Also, Fifth Third Bank is rumored to be ready to add the benefits sometime in 2007, business sources say.

Health insurance is the central component of almost all domestic partner benefit plans, but some companies offer packages that include disability and life insurance, pension benefits, family medical and bereavement leave, tuition assistance and day care.

By the time P&G expanded its benefits, though, Adkins — who has worked for the company for 30 years — was unable to fully take advantage of the change. Adkins had separated from her longtime partner, who lives a block away and still is actively involved with parenting, and one of the kids is now grown and in the Army. Because Adkins gave birth to one of the kids while her ex-partner gave birth to the two others, they aren't covered under Adkins' benefits. Such permutations are common among heterosexual couples who get divorced, and the children remain eligible, Adkins says, which is why legalizing gay marriage is important to many couples.

"It's all about the definition of a family," she says. "If we can get married, then we're recognized as a family and legitimized. Then it's not so hard to deal with issues like separation and divorce. Until we recognize gay marriage, I don't see that issue being resolved." ©