only cover the employee, but recognize that employees are parts of families and offer coverage for other family members as well. Family members, for employee benefits purposes, usually include only the spouse and minor children of the employee. Benefits provided include family coverage under health plans, life insurance coverage on family members, survivor pension benefits for spouses and minor children, and higher disability benefits for married employees. Beginning in the mid-1980s, some employers, both public and private, began to expand the definition of family used in their employee benefit programs to cover a new category of persons known as "domestic partners."
There is no universal definition of the term "domestic partners;" each employer that has decided to offer such benefits has established its own definition. There are, however, strong similarities between definitions of domestic partnerships and of marriage. For example, most, though not all, definitions of domestic partnerships are limited to two people only and include requirements with respect to age, mental competency, blood relationship, and emotional commitment much like those required of two people seeking to marry. The major difference is that, unlike marriage laws, two persons of the same sex are allowed to be domestic partners and, in a few jurisdictions (e.g., Washington, D.C., and Madison, WI), two persons who are closely related by blood (e.g., two sisters or a mother and adult child) may also be considered domestic partners. Most employers require that persons wishing to be considered domestic partners register their status in some form, similar to the way in which civil marriages are registered. Terminating a domestic partnership, however, is usually much less onerous than securing a divorce.
Currently, only a few European countries (e.g., Denmark, Norway, and France), two states in the U.S. ( Vermont and New York), the province of Ontario in Canada, and approximately 30 U.S. county, municipal, and special district governments offer domestic partnership benefits to their employees. In the private sector in the United States, the number of employers offering benefits of their type is closer to 100, although the number is increasing rapidly in certain fields, such as computer-related industries and the entertainment industry. The adoption of such policies is often defended as necessary to provide private sector employers with a competitive advantage in recruiting employees who are homosexuals. Universities, both public and private, have been adopting domestic partnership benefits polices in recent years, as well, although their policies are more often justified as being consistent with their policies prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (see discrimination, sexual orientation).
Opposition to domestic partnership registration and benefit programs is often expressed in both moral and economic terms. Some opponents feel that recognition, particularly by a governmental body, of a family relationship between lesbians, gay men, or heterosexual partners who are not legally married undermines the cultural importance of marriage as a social institution or that it violates specific religious teachings in which they believe. Others oppose such benefits because of the potential financial costs of covering additional persons with unknown medical risks. Supporters of domestic partnership benefit programs argue that it is the responsibility of employers to treat all employees equally regardless of how they choose to construct their private family lives and that the enforcement of particular religious values, especially by government employers, is wrong. Also, costs may legitimately be considered in deciding whether or not to offer a particular benefit to any employee, but not in deciding to limit the benefit to a class of employees based on marital status. In any event, the evidence from employers who have adopted domestic partnership benefits does not indicate disproportionate costs to provide benefits to domestic partners when compared to the cost of providing benefits to marriage partners.
A debate also arises over whether domestic partnerships should be limited to partners of the same sex or should include partners of opposite sexes, as well. One finds that public sector employers are much more likely to provide benefits to both same sex and opposite sex partners than private sector employers, which tend to limit these benefits programs to same sex partners only. The argument in favor of limiting domestic partnership benefits to same sex partners is that opposite sex partners have the option of marrying while same sex partners do not. A more inclusive definition of partnerships is based on the idea that once an employer has decided to recognize family relationships other than that of a legally married man and woman, excluding opposite sex partners is illogical and, possibly, discriminatory.
The question of domestic partnership benefits is being raised more frequently in both the public and private sectors. Expansion in the private sector is based on considerations of cost, competitive advantage in recruiting, and, to a lesser extent, the values of corporate leaders. In the public sector, the question of domestic partnerships generates heated debates as it is a stark illustration of differing values among different parts of the community and expansion is likely to occur more slowly, if at all.
CHARLES W. GOSSETT
Gossett, Charles W., 1994. "Domestic Partnership Benefits: Public Sector Patterns". Review of Public Personnel Administration (Winter) 64-84.
Laabs J. L., 1991. "Unmarried . . . With Benefits". Personnel Journal, vol. 70, no. 12 (December) 62-70.
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 1992. Domestic Partnership Organizing Manual. Washington, D.C.: NGLTF Policy Institute.