Penn State changes benefits policy for same-sex couples

Rainbow flags waved across the nation on June 26 when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. At Penn State, the decision led to a change in employee benefits — and possibly to some wedding plans.

As of July 1, Penn State no longer offers benefits to new employees’ same-sex domestic partners and their children. Employees already in the benefits program have until June 30, 2017, to get married in order to keep their benefits.

This change matches the benefits policy for heterosexual couples at Penn State.

“Couples of opposite sexes had to be married, so in order to have equity we made an exception (for same-sex partners). But now there’s equality between both types of couples,” said Cassandra Kitko, interim director of employee benefits at Penn State.

“We understood they needed time, especially if they wanted to have a big wedding,” Kitko said, “and we wanted to provide the opportunity for them, so we gave them a two-year window.”

Marie Lindhorst, chairwoman of the university’s Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equity for the 2014-2015 term, said Penn State’s human resources staff came to the commission to discuss the change.

The university proposed a one-year phase-out, she said, but commission members urged that it allow two years.

“I think, in my opinion, they did it right in giving extended time to figure out plans,” said Sing Wong, a Penn State employee. “It would have been different if they said by the end of the year, but it’s sufficient timing since it’s not a small decision.”

Wong, a learning designer for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, is directly affected by the new same-sex benefits decision because his domestic partner receives these benefits through Wong’s employment.

They are not married and now have until the end of June 2017 to marry if they want their benefits to continue. Wedding bells, in fact, are in the future — Wong said the two were recently engaged.

“I would say the decision itself didn’t push on our timeline, but I could see how it could have,” Wong said.

He said he hasn’t heard anything overly negative about the change but added that he isn’t as involved with the gay community as he used to be.

“There was no backlash,” Kitko said. “We involved the groups most involved and took advice from them. We sent letters to these partners because we wanted them to know right off the bat.”

According to a June 26 article in Modern Healthcare, an online publication for the health care industry, “Under the Affordable Care Act all insurance companies must offer the same individual or group health plans to legally married gay and lesbian couples as those offered to married heterosexual couples.”

The article reported that “77 percent of large employers offer same-sex domestic partner health care, according to Chicago-based benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt.”

With gay marriage legalized, it is now up to individual companies to decide if they want to continue to give same-sex domestic partners benefits or just offer spousal benefits. Like corporations such as Verizon Communications and Delta Air Lines, Penn State decided not to continue same-sex partner benefits.

Lindhorst said her group’s main concern is for couples who now have to marry to get benefits. Being married, she said, could expose them to discrimination in other places, such as in employment or housing.

Pennsylvania has no law prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing and workplace conditions.

“Today in Pennsylvania, gay and transgender people can be fired, evicted and turned away from a business simply because of who they are and who they love,” according to Pennsylvania Competes, an organization that describes itself as dedicated to equality in housing, employment and business and government services by prohibiting discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identification.

Penn State recently signed on to Pennsylvania Competes, which supports passage of the Pennsylvania Fairness Act. The act would replace the 1955 Human Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, sex, national origin or disability.

The Pennsylvania Fairness Act would add sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to that list.

While the state has no such law, some Pennsylvania municipalities, including State College, protect citizens based on sexual orientation, according to the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in the Greater Lehigh Valley.

Lindhorst said that, through Pennsylvania Competes, citizens can “push for the kind of anti-discrimination laws that we need to protect LGBT couples no matter what their status.”