A Matter of Human Dignity
When the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Corporate America reacted with ambivalence.
Some blue-chip companies were quick to praise the landmark ruling, which clearly was a major victory for same-sex couples and serious blow to conservative forces that sought to confine nuptials to a man and woman.
Apple, one of about 300 firms that signed an amicus brief challenging DOMA’s constitutionality, equated it to “a civil-rights issue.” On Twitter, Goldman Sachs proposed that “marriage equality lowers burdens and challenges imposed on employers, and will lead to building successful businesses and a stronger American economy.”
But there also were grumblings among HR practitioners and their legal advisers about how the decision would further complicate employee benefits administration, especially for multistate employers. Corporate counselors have been busy issuing wake-up calls ever since.
Todd Solomon, a partner in the employee benefits practice of McDermott, Will & Emery, and author of “Domestic Partner Benefits: An Employer’s Guide,” recently told Employee Benefit News that uncertainty surrounds the ruling’s effect “in the 38 states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage.”
In that same article, I was somewhat surprised to learn that the ruling affects more than 1,000 federal laws containing provisions that apply to spouses. So I completely understand and appreciate why employers might not be so keen on having to comply with yet another federal government mandate. It’s an added cost of doing business.
On the other side, however, it can be argued that overturning DOMA represents an opportunity for businesses to reap greater value and higher productivity from gay and lesbian employees who no longer feel like they’re treated as second-class citizens.
The fact is that scores of same-sex spouses will discover that as dependents who are added to their partner’s group health insurance policy, the coverage is no longer a taxable benefit under federal tax law. They also are now entitled to receive survivor annuity rights in a traditional retirement pension plan and will have beneficiary rights to a 401(k) plan. These are important financial protections that their heterosexual colleagues have enjoyed from the start.
Of course, many forward-thinking companies already offer generous benefits to domestic partners – recognizing that it pays a dividend in terms of recruiting and retaining top talent. But now it’s the law of the land.
Having weighed the business and moral implications of DOMA’s destruction, I see both sides of the issue. But what’s most important is human dignity, which I surely hope human resources people believe should trump any concern about another labor-intensive or costly task to do.