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Labor Day Parades for Just Some of Us?: American Corporations and the Future of Same-Sex Marriage

10/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, it's Labor Day and the moment once a year that America remembers and celebrates our working men and women. But after the picnics end and parades fade, we sometimes forget there are 364 more days to worry about.

For same-sex couples and their families especially, those are the days we should put in the spotlight. The good news is simple. More of America's hard-working lesbian and gay families are on the verge of full lawful recognition.

The bad news is that many more of these families still are not legally recognized, and even same-sex couples equally recognized may find themselves frozen in place and time especially when it comes to their jobs and their workplace benefits given conflicting laws and jurisdictions.

As same-sex couples travel to California, or Massachusetts, or perhaps Canada, to be married, corporate executives no doubt are puzzling about how these trends might affect recruitment and retention policies, practices and benefits when it comes to their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workforce. This is especially true for multistate and global employers.

The upside from same-sex marriages is very rewarding for our struggling American economy. For example, a recent study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law predicts that same-sex marriages in California will bring nearly $700 million to the California wedding industry, add nearly $65 million to state and local tax coffers, and create 2,100 new jobs over the next three years. The measurable economic boost associated with marriage equality is tangible, but not the only factor in understanding how changes in partnership rights for same-sex couples are likely to affect American business.

Most major corporations are well prepared -- many ahead of the curve -- when it comes to nondiscrimination. The idea of same-sex marriage may still seem a bit revolutionary for some, but for American business, the idea is more evolutionary. Lotus (now absorbed by IBM), led the way in 1990 when it became the first publicly traded company to offer "spousal equivalent" benefits to the partners of its lesbian and gay employees. Today, over half of all Fortune 500 companies provided similar benefits to their employees.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the higher a company ranks on Fortune magazine's list of America's most successful businesses, the more likely it is to provide comprehensive protections and benefits. Companies know that equality is good business. It allows them to attract the widest possible talent and retain happy and productive workforces. As a result, over 8,000 companies offer equal benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees.

But widely divergent national, state, and local laws affecting same-sex couples and their families send businesses into complicated and expensive territory. A joint study of The Williams Institute and the Center for American Progress finds that federal tax law today that treats domestic partnership benefits different from spousal benefits means that the typical same-sex couple (married or otherwise) pays an additional $1,000 per year in taxes, on average, from which a different-sex married couple is exempt. This unequal treatment also costs U.S. employers more than $57 million per year in extra federal taxes.

Same-sex couples can wed in California, Massachusetts, Canada and several other foreign countries. New Yorkers married in any of these locations will have their marriages recognized. Eight other states and the District of Columbia offer civil unions or extend same-sex couples some of the benefits given to their heterosexual married counterparts.

Almost 30% of the US population lives in a state that formally recognizes same-sex couples. As a result, one in ten of the 780,000 estimated same-sex couples in the United States are in a legally recognized union. Nonetheless, many states have adopted same-sex marriage bans over the past few years. Michigan's ban even rules out extending domestic partner benefits. And no same-sex relationships are recognized under federal law.

What is really at stake for business in this debate? A great deal.

Business leaders are not radical social engineers trying to define or redefine anyone's family. They respond primarily to customer needs, market competition and the constant pressures to recruit, attract and retain top-quality employees. Creating welcoming and inclusive work environments, where gay couples are treated exactly like heterosexual couples, is common sense and good business sense.

Uncertainty in a corporation, however, is distracting and expensive. Consider a global and multi-state company, for example, with a mill in Michigan, a port facility in Massachusetts, a finishing plant in Arkansas, sales divisions in Pennsylvania and Toronto, and a corporate headquarters in southern California.

The patchwork of legal rights and partner responsibilities across these jurisdictions means complications for employers and their workers and families. It's safe to predict that many talented gay employees will avoid reassignments and potentially refuse promotions that require transfers to places where they and their partners lose legal protections and could even lose parental rights to their own children.

Marriage equality offers employers a leg up in attracting diverse and talented workforces. But without uniform recognition of these marriages in all U.S. jurisdictions, some highly prized and loyal employees may find themselves trapped in a legal limbo that limits their flexibility to follow optimal career paths while their married heterosexual couples remain safe knowing that their spouses and families remain lawfully intact no matter where they may go.

The absence of marriage recognition for same-sex couples creates financial and logistical liabilities for business, adversely affects employee morale, complicates employment and benefit polices, and makes it harder for companies to relocate their top talent.

America's most successful companies were among the first to recognize that workplace equality for all of their employees, straight and gay, is the right solution. Marriage for same-sex couples throughout the nation provides the simplest mechanism for making all of America's companies more successful and their gay and lesbian employees more productive.

All of us can truly celebrate Labor Day when the United States - as a whole - treats its same-sex couples with the full and equal protection of relationship laws no matter where we live, where we work and whom we love.

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