Open Forum

Domestic Partner Benefits at UT

What do the University of California, Harvard, Southern Methodist and Rice have but the University of Texas does not? The answer is domestic partner benefits. These are benefits comparable to those that employers award employees’ legal spouses, only extended to employees’ domestic partners. They partially address an inequity in the workplace that favors legally married couples over couples that cannot get married–usually gays and lesbians.

Internationally, entire countries, among them Canada, France, Germany, and Brazil, have instituted them. Nationally, according to the Human Rights Campaign, 134 local governments, including nine states, and thousands of unions and both nonprofit and for-profit corporations, including 169 Fortune 500 companies, have adopted them. A Human Rights Campaign report indicated that they don’t cost much–adding less than one to two percent to benefits costs–and they help attract and maintain the best employees.

In the United States, they are common among the more prestigious institutions of higher education–168 colleges and universities now grant them–where they are considered a part of a competitive compensation package. After the University of California instituted them, a November 5, 1998 article in the Los Angeles Times quoted Lubbe Levin, the University’s assistant vice president for human resources: “Frankly, we have not seen any downside…. It seems to have made a big difference in overall morale. And it’s helped us with our recruitment and retention of the most talented faculty and staff, since most of our competitors offer this.”

But not the University of Texas. UT claims that it is illegal for the University to offer domestic partner benefits. The Texas Legislature must first pass legislation. That is where the situation has stood for the better part of a decade: UT has shown little institutional will to raise the issue with the Legislature.

When asked why the University does not approach lawmakers about extending such benefits, UT administrators typically respond that they are legally forbidden to lobby. Apparently, the school administrators swarming around the Capitol when the Legislature is in session like fire ants on a disturbed mound do not lobby. Never mind that administrators were publicly denounced last session by legislators for illegally hiring professional lobbyists.

In fairness, it’s easy to see why University administrators would avoid this issue. From the perspective of their individual career paths, there is probably not much to be gained by asking Texas’ at times bizarrely homophobic Legislature to do anything nice for gays, lesbians and others whose domestic arrangements do not quite mimic Ward and June Cleaver’s.

Then there’s the great disaster of 1993. In that year, the Austin City Council approved domestic partnership benefits for city employees. Immediately the religious right began a petition drive to force a public vote. They succeeded, and, in May 1994, the policy lost at the polls. This debacle is often cited by UT administrators.

The counter to the administrators’ fear is to point out that it is the right thing to do. Texas law dictates that state and university officials have a duty to see that UT’s benefit packages remain competitive. A March 2002 report of the UT Austin Staff Council shows that recruitment of faculty and staff is being hurt by the lack of domestic partner benefits. Seven out of twelve of UT’s national peer institutions offer them. Moreover, UT has a sexual-orientation non-discrimination policy, which threatens to become a bad joke as long as domestic partner benefits are not offered to employees. Finally, domestic partner benefits are an expression of our love and compassion for our neighbors, friends, relatives, and fellow citizens. September 11 dramatically illustrated this point. Debates arose over whether victims’ domestic partners were entitled to compensation just as legally recognized spouses were. What could render a person stone-hearted enough to deny that they were?

But on to the less spectacular forms of evil. My partner Robert is self-employed and cannot take part in the group medical benefits offered by UT, which employs me. He and I must pay thousands of dollars more a year for medical insurance than my legally married colleagues in similar circumstances. Introducing these benefits at UT would, at minimal cost, help not only us, whose middle-class incomes allow us financially to bear this injustice, but also many clerical and other UT workers whose shamefully low pay may prohibit buying medical insurance for their partners.

But that’s just the most obvious way in which a lack of such benefits at the University causes real human problems. Radio-Television-Film professor Ellen Spiro and her partner Karen Bernstein want to have a child. “I can calculate how much it costs not to be able to get medical benefits for Karen,” says Spiro. “But, now that we’re trying to have a baby, when you sum up all the various other things–death benefits, … retirement stuff–it really becomes incalculable.”

John Rundin is an assistant professor of Classics at UT at San Antonio and is a board member of the Texas ACLU.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST