It was about a year before Vanessa, a 29-year-old Chicagoan who works for a property management firm, first noticed the error: Her employer-sponsored health insurance plan had her boyfriend listed as a woman.
"For a while, they did have him down listed as a female for some reason," Vanessa told The Huffington Post. "I think that was the default option, since I'm female."
That default option makes sense: Domestic partner benefits were initially created with same-sex couples in mind, and over the years, more employers have included them in their health insurance coverage in an effort to recruit and retain top talent.
But this shift towards more inclusive coverage has had implications beyond equalizing benefits for gay couples. The number of employers offering benefits to unmarried opposite-sex couples has risen along with the number offering benefits for gay couples, though not as quickly. Straight couples, it turns out, are in a unique position to benefit from their employers' reactions to the inconsistencies between state and federal laws regarding gay marriage.
"Every time a company thinks about rolling out domestic partner coverage, the question comes up," Joan Smyth, a client relationship manager with Mercer, a health benefits consulting firm, told HuffPost. "Back in the day, people would say, 'They can get married, and these guys can't.' But that started changing. People started saying, 'In some states [same-sex couples] can get married, it's very murky, so why don’t we [cover] opposite sex couples?'"
A 2010 Mercer survey of about 3,000 companies found that same-sex benefits were offered by 72 percent of companies employing more than 20,000 people, up from 62 percent in 2006, while 40 percent offered opposite-sex benefits, up from 35 percent.
According to J.D. Piro, a senior vice president with the human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt, coverage for same-sex couples has been and continues to be the primary focus for employers. That makes the availability of opposite-sex benefits a by-product, rather than a development in and of itself.
“The trend has really been towards focusing on the same-sex relationships,” Piro said. “Certainly, they’re building in opposite-sex couples as a well, but the concern here is with same-sex couples.”
Still, that building-in is substantial: Aon Hewitt found that of 1,300 employers from 2010 to 2011, coverage for same- and opposite-sex couples both rose by 4 percentage points -- from 64 to 68 percent and from 41 to 46 percent, respectively.
While there isn’t a set definition of what constitutes a domestic partnership -– it can vary on a state-by-state, or even city-by-city basis -- the general rule of thumb is that couples need to be in a committed relationship, live together, be financially interdependent or have some combination of these factors. With marriage rates at an all-time low and the number of cohabitating couples jumping by 13 percent from 2009 to 2010, an increasing number of people potentially meet these criteria.
After New York began recognizing gay marriages, Cornell University added straight couples to its employee coverage as an alternative to getting rid of domestic partner benefits altogether. Syracuse University did the same last year, and it had 50 straight couples sign up right off the bat.
According to Deena Fidas, who advises companies on benefits policies for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), employers are recognizing changes in cultural perceptions of what constitutes a committed relationship.
“The initial conversations that were primarily focused on [LGBT] employees really sparked a broader conversation about the changing nature of the workforce [whether it’s] choosing to not get married or just other different family configurations,” Fidas said.
As a result, many companies started erring on the side of opening up benefits to more couples rather than less, and not relegating certain benefits to same-sex couples and others to heterosexual couples.
"We've heard from some of them: 'We didn't want to go down that path,’” Fidas said.
In fact, going down the path of offering coverage exclusively to same-sex couples has led to accusations of discrimination for some employers. A Westchester teacher recently sued her school for covering the domestic partners of same-sex couples but not the man she’d been living with for 30 years. And last fall, a Northwestern University professor made headlines when he complained that his current employee insurance plan didn't cover the woman with whom he is in a civil union.
Last month, Cincinnati lawmakers ended up extending benefits to the heterosexual domestic partners of their city employees -- initially, at least, to preempt litigation, according to Chris Seelbach, an openly gay city councilman.
"It was to avoid a lawsuit," Seelbach said of the policy he sponsored.
In Ohio, gay marriage violates the constitution, and Seelbach expected critics to argue that by offering benefits only to same sex-couples, the policy would effectively imitate gay marriage. Granting equal benefits to straight couples turned out to be the loophole.
"If [the benefits are] open to anyone ... including straight people who choose not to get married, there's no way someone can claim we're trying to imitate same-sex marriage," Seelbach said, adding that unmarried straight couples deserve equal treatment, regardless of the need for a legislative quid pro quo.
With its move in early May, Cincinnati joined Cleveland and Columbus, which already offered domestic partners benefits to city employees regardless of sexual orientation. The city of Toledo is expected to approve a similar policy next week, and Indianapolis may do the same.
According to Todd Solomon, a partner with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, the diversity concerns of employers have rippled beyond increases in coverage: They’ve also made it easier for employees to enroll significant others in company plans.
"It is definitely a trend that the proof requirements are getting less and less in corporate America," Solomon said. "Especially at bigger companies."
Some companies only require signing an internal form that acknowledges that the employee lives with his or her partner and that they have been dating a certain amount of months. If an employer requires spouses to provide no form of proof, it wouldn't want to make it more complicated for domestic partners.
"It's very, very common, to e-mail and say 'I got married over the weekend please put my wife on my health plan,'" Solomon said. "So, in a lot of companies, that's how you can do it."
Mike Miller, a 33-year-old self-employed personal trainer living in Chicago, was able to get on his male roommate's insurance plan for a year, even though the two are straight and were never dating.
"It was completely heterosexual. He's just my best friend," Miller said. "I think he just filled out a form and that was that."
Despite a "company form" not sounding formal, it is meant to serve as affirmation of a legal domestic partnership: Good writer Nona Willis Aronowitz had to marry her boyfriend, who was on her health plan, after a $7,000 hospital bill prompted her company to ask for proof of their domestic partnership, which she didn’t have.
If gay marriage becomes legally recognized in more states, it’s possible that more companies will start requiring couples to marry to qualify for coverage. In fact, a few have already done so, as The New York Times has reported. That means the sweet spot that unmarried straight couples are in to piggy-back on the gay marriage debate might not last.
It’s also worth noting that those couples -- same-sex or opposite-sex -- do still pay extra taxes on their domestic-partner benefits, which married people don’t. And the number of employers who reimburse their employees for those tax costs -- which can run well over $1,000 a year -- is still low, though it has begun to grow.
For her part, Vanessa, the Chicago property management firm employee, said her experiences with domestic partnership benefits gave her a new appreciation for what gay couples go through.
"I didn't quite get everything on the news until I was getting into it myself," she said. "It's just really expensive to not be married."
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