San Francisco's Mandate Forces Domestic-Partner Benefits Mainstream

Article excerpt

A new San Francisco law requires city contractors to offer employees domesticpartner benefits--and has stirred up a wind of change that's blowing across the country.

Tom Ammiano has been a popular man with the national media lately. And no wonder: Ammiano, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, helped draft a landmark ordinance forcing employers that do business with the city to offer registered domestic partners--either same-sex or heterosexual couples--the same benefits they offer married couples. "ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox ... they've all been here," crows Ammiano.

HR professionals take note: There's good reason for all the fuss. San Francisco's new mandate, which is taking effect this month, has caused employers across the nation to consider offering the full range of benefits-- from health insurance to pension plans--to couples in nontraditional partnerships. A few years ago these were uncharted waters. Only a handful of employers offered benefits to domestic partners and most of them were either on the West Coast or in the northeastern United States. But the trend is slowly moving inland and attracting the interest of more corporations. Should you be studying it in case a local government where you do business matches San Francisco's mandate? Will your own employees or public pressure force you to take action? Should you worry about losing business by offending conservative customers? A look at the reasons that the practice is spreading and the experiences of companies that took the plunge reveals some vital lessons.

San Francisco starts a trend. Like it or not, this is clearly a trend that's here to stay. San Francisco's mandate has employers all over California nervous, says Conley Baker, a San Francisco-based regional manager for the Employers Group, a 5,000-member association of California companies. "There's a feeling among our members that this is only the beginning, that many municipalities around the state will be doing this," he says. And the trend has reached far beyond California. Many U.S. cities already offer or might soon offer benefits to the domestic partners of their own workers. And New York City recently ordered its lawyers to draft a mandate like San Francisco's for private employers that do business there.

In addition, among those cities that aren't yet requiring the extension of benefits, there's a growing number of municipalities around the country that now offer registration for same-sex domestic partners, likely the first move toward making domestic-partner benefits more feasible. Even the Midwest is beginning to feel the winds of change. "Things change slowly here," says Loralia Van Sluys, a researcher at consulting firm Hewitt Associates based in Lincolnshire, Illinois. But, she says, "We've definitely had a lot of questions because of what San Francisco did."

Of course many companies, such as Disney and IBM, wanting to do everything they can to lure and keep top-notch talent, started offering such benefits even before San Francisco's mandate hit the news when it passed last November. Indeed, by some estimates, as many as 300 corporate employers already offer domesticpartner benefits.

Pockets of resistance remain. Many San Francisco firms began providing the benefits upon passage of the new law and in advance of it officially going into effect. The San Francisco 49ers, for example, already has a plan in place for its 220 employees and team members. But not all companies have embraced the concept so readily. There's considerable resistance to the idea, even in corporate San Francisco. United Airlines, for example, showed reluctance to rush into setting up a domestic-partner benefits program under the mandate. The airline has settled its dispute with the city, agreeing to make a good-faith effort to extend domestic-partner benefits nationwide within two years in exchange for a 25-year lease on a plot it needs at the San Francisco airport, but not before prolonged wrangling with city officials. …