Do a woman and her domestic partner constitute a family? Most liberal Americans would probably say they do. But what about a woman who lives with and takes care of her elderly mother? What about a brother who lives with his sister and helps raise her children?
These situations might be more complicated, but as of January 1, 2006, they too will be eligible for family health care coverage at Georgetown University. Under a new policy just approved by the President’s Executive Committee, Georgetown University employees can purchase a family health insurance policy that covers their domestic partner or adult tax dependent, as defined by federal tax law.
The policy marks a drastic change from that of previous years, which restricted benefits to “your legal spouse of opposite gender and your dependent children,” according to a Georgetown Human Resources web site. The new policy is gender-neutral and no longer requires that a family involve a marriage.
Many might be surprised to see this kind of policy at a Catholic university, in a time when the Catholic Church has been associated with the strong bolstering of traditional marriage and the persecution of homosexuals. However, administrators and faculty members alike see the change as bringing Georgetown even closer to its professed Catholic ideals.
“We … believe that expanding our current offerings in this way will increase access to quality health care benefits to more members of the Georgetown University community, in keeping with our commitment as a Catholic, Jesuit University to respond to the human needs of others,” Senior Vice President Spiros Dimolitsas wrote in an e-mail to faculty and staff Tuesday.
Rev. Joseph Palacios, S.J., a Georgetown professor of Sociology, echoed this sentiment. “If you’re going to have a benefit it should be equally distributed no matter who’s in bed with whom,” he said.
Moreover, this policy will increase Georgetown’s attractiveness to potential faculty and staff. For Maya Roth, chair of the Theater Department, the lack of domestic partner benefits had been a serious impediment to recruiting. “In the arts, there is perhaps greater diversity and greater respect for diversity,” she said.
She recalled one potential hire who fit the department’s need almost perfectly, but ultimately chose not to come to Georgetown because of its former benefits policy. “His partner did not feel welcome, and therefore he did not,” she said. “It was pretty devastating for them to see how the benefits policy was stated on the web site.”
Similarly, Georgetown English Professor Dana Luciano considered declining the offer to join the English department because her spouse would not be covered under Georgetown’s health insurance policy. She ultimately chose to come to Georgetown. “In every other way this was a wonderful move for me,” she said.
Like most employers throughout the nation, Georgetown provides health insurance, as well as other benefits, to full-time employees and their family members who are ineligible for any other health insurance. Currently, Georgetown pays about 70% of the premium for health insurance, with the rest deducted from employee wages. Employees can choose from two plans, and they can purchase single coverage or family coverage.
Until now, however, family plans have only provided coverage to employees’ legal spouses and dependent children. And although same-sex marriages are legal today in the state of Massachusetts, the University only recognizes marriages considered valid in the District of Columbia. When Luciano and Fink brought up the issue last spring, they were concerned mainly with the fact that gay and lesbian employees had no way to cover their partners.
In crafting an inclusive benefits policy, however, employers have a number of options. Some companies choose to specify that they will provide coverage to same-sex domestic partners. Some cover domestic partners without specifying sex. Georgetown has decided to extend benefits to “legally-domiciled adults,” or LDAs.
Georgetown is neither the first Catholic university nor the first Jesuit university to adopt this kind of change. The LDA language reflects wording used at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school in California. This language does not explicitly acknowledge the rights of same-sex domestic partners. But by using language that acknowledges many types of non-traditional families, these universities have adopted some of the most inclusive benefits policies in the country.
Under Georgetown’s policy, LDAs must be adults who have lived with the employee for at least six months. They can be domestic partners who have “a close personal relationship with the employee” and are “financially interdependent” with the employee, Or, they can be blood relatives who are tax dependants???dependant on the employee for more than half of their financial support.
Although the LDA language is extremely inclusive, according to Luciano, “it is not uncontroversial.” Luciano said that many gay rights advocates see LDA policies as “sidestepping” the real issue???equal rights for homosexuals.
Rev. Joseph Palacios, S.J., a Georgetown professor of Sociology, pointed out the efficacy of this model. “It’s been a way for the University to say, ‘it’s not about marriage, it’s not about gay,’” he said. “They can avoid it completely.”
Roth agreed. “I think it’s probably smart language that provides necessary domestic partner benefits, while it’s not my first choice of what the language would be,” she said. “But it’s a good step forward.”
As far as Luciano is concerned, this policy is not sidestepping the issue of homosexuality. Instead, she said, the LDA policy recognizes the economic nature of marriage. While many may associate this aspect of the institution with times past, Luciano argues that it persists today.
“People also get married because they need to eat,” she said. If marriage is an economic arrangement, other economic family arrangements should be recognized as well, she said.
This is particularly true, she added, in the case of health benefits. “The point of having health benefits is largely economic and not social,” she said. “It is a question of economic justice.”
How did Georgetown go from one of the least inclusive programs among its peer universities to one of the most progressive? Although the change was initiated by faculty, the rapidity of its implementation was a joint effort among faculty and University administrators.
Last spring, Luciano and fellow English Professor Jennifer Fink got to talking. Both recent hires from New York schools with more liberal benefits policies, Luciano and Fink felt that it was imperative for Georgetown to provide benefits for
Fink said that while many faculty members were aware that the policy was discriminatory, they thought that Georgetown’s Catholic identity prevented the University from offering benefits to
“Otherwise progressive folks would say, well, this is a Catholic school, we can’t do that here,” she said.
But with a little research, Fink said she found that there were other Catholic universities who had found a way to provide benefits to domestic partners.
Luciano and Fink drafted a letter to the Faculty Senate, a body composed of faculty that advises the president, calling for the creation of “a committee charged with exploring domestic-partnership policy models within the next academic year.” Endorsed by two departments, the letter had 65 individual signatories.
In May 2005, the Faculty Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on University President John J. DeGioia to form this committee.
DeGioia did not wait until the next academic year, and he did more than form a committee. According to University spokesperson Julie Green Bataille, the President’s Executive Committee, which must approve policy changes like this one, spent the summer exploring the possibility of changing the benefits policy. By the end of September, Senior Vice President Spiros Dimolitsas and General Counsel Jane Genster were ready with a proposal.
“I was surprised by how fast the movement was, and pleased,” Luciano said.
The proposal continued its rapid move through the University bureaucracy, passing just in time for Open Enrollment, when faculty and staff sign up for insurance for the next year.
Although the proposal was adopted in a timely manner, Fink emphasized that the change had not necessarily been easy. “This was a struggle, and it involved a lot of work by a lot of people and it’s an extension of advocacy that has been going for 25 years,” she said. But she added, “I’m extremely pleased with the policy.
Although the addition of LDA benefits is a step in the right direction, according to advocates of gay rights and non-traditional families, it is certainly not the end of a drive for equality.
Though a number of benefits remain out of reach for non-traditional families, Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Workplace Project at the HRC, said that health benefits are the most important.
Georgetown’s Human Resources website indicates that LDA coverage is still unavailable for dental insurance, while it is available for legal spouses. Employees can also purchase life insurance for spouses, while they cannot for LDAs.
Bataille said that Benefits Advisory Committee, which is composed of faculty and staff, recommended not including LDAs in dental coverage because the dental insurance plans are likely to change next year anyway.
She added, however, that the University is not planning to extend any other benefits to LDAs in the near future. “Healthcare coverage is the major benefit offered by the university that could impact the most people, so that was the focus of this effort,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Even within the health insurance policy, however, barriers remain. Benefits for non-tax dependant LDAs, usually same-sex partners, end up costing more for the employee. Because federal law does not recognize domestic partnerships, civil unions or same-sex marriage, employees must pay income tax on benefits for LDAs, while benefits to traditional families are tax-exempt.
In addition, the policy specifies that children of LDAs are not eligible for coverage. Adoption is an option for domestic partners in the District, a process that is “relatively straightforward,” according to Summersgill.
But Summersgill argues that simply requiring adoption puts up an additional hurdle for couples with children from previous relationships. Whereas married couples can provide benefits to stepchildren, no such protection exists for unmarried partners. “Everything would be a whole lot easier if gay people could just get married,” Summersgill said.
He emphasized the importance of providing benefits specifically to children of LDAs. “I think it would be quite a mistake for a University to treat a child any differently because of the family structure they come from,” he said.
Several benefits are provided by District of Columbia law. According to Georgetown’s Human Resources Manual, the local Family Leave Law entitles employees to unpaid leave for the sickness of a person “with whom the employee shares or has shared with the last year a mutual residence and with whom the employee maintains a committed relationship.” Employees are entitled to the same leave for the birth, placement or sickness of a “child for whom the employee permanently assumes and discharges parental responsibility,” according to the manual.
Federal law also prohibits the distribution of post-termination benefits to LDAs. Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, known as COBRA, employers must give employees and their families the option of continuing health and dental coverage for up to 18 months. This is an option often used by children who grow out of dependent status. It is also available to spouses after divorce or death, but it is not available to LDAs under the same circumstances.
Ultimately, according to Fink, the fight for equality goes far beyond health benefits. “We have an ongoing struggle to include throughout our curriculum educating our students about individual and institutional homophobia,” she said.
She noted that LGBTQ students are still fighting for a real gay and lesbian resource center???LGBTQ Community Resource Director Bill McCoy splits his time with other responsibilities in student programs.
Daryl Herrshaft, Director of the Workplace Project as the HRC, added that Georgetown and other universities have a long way to go in terms of equality for transgender employees.
“Corporate America is already eclipsing academic institutions in its treatment of transgender employees,” he said.
Yet both Herrschaft and Fink acknowledged the importance of this step forward.
“Georgetown University has already done the hardest work of extending benefits to GLBT employes,” Herrschaft said.
Fink added, “I see the institution moving from a culture of homophobia to a culture of equality.”