Baltimore grants benefits to gays

December 16, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Domestic partners of gay and lesbian Baltimore municipal workers will be eligible for health benefits under a new policy approved yesterday, making the city one of a growing number of municipalities to recognize homosexual unions.

The new policy, adopted unanimously by the Board of Estimates, takes effect Jan. 1, 1995. It amends the city's administrative manual on health care provisions to give gay and lesbian partners the same benefits that spouses of city workers now enjoy and requires no further governmental action.

The board's action drew no public opposition yesterday and was greeted by smiles and applause from a dozen or so gay and lesbian advocates at the meeting.

During the meeting, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the policy was necessary to recognize the needs domestic partners -- couples who are forbidden by law from marrying. He also cautioned supporters of the new policy against complacency.

"I hope we don't get a false sense of security by the ease with which this occurred. I think this is the calm before the storm," Mr. Schmoke said.

After the meeting, Mr. Schmoke noted that there was "quite a furor generated" in cities with similar policies by those who object to the lifestyles of homosexuals and those who feel benefits are inappropriate.

"Proponents should be prepared to continue their support," he said.

Yesterday, a spokesman for at least one group that espouses traditional family values voiced opposition to the policy.

"It gives legal sanction to something with many moral implications. The issue of homosexuality is not a health care issue," said Douglas Stiegler, director of the Family Protection Lobby in Annapolis.

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore declined to comment on the policy yesterday. A board member of the Baltimore-based Central Maryland Ecumenical Council said that group has not taken a position on the issue.

L But gay and lesbian advocates applauded the board's actions.

"It's an important step to extend basically equal pay for equal work. It's an important step for the city to take as an employer to recognize that's important to have equality in the workplace," said Barbara Samuels, head of the mayor's Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Issues.

"If you strengthen the family support for your employees, you get more from your employees," added Ms. Samuels.

Shannon E. Avery, co-chair of the Baltimore Justice Campaign, said: "We're very, very pleased. We feel that the mayor and other members of the board recognized the importance of the issue and took a practical approach."

As a contractual employee with the state public defender's office, Ms. Avery gets no health benefits, but her partner, who is also a woman, is a city employee.

"Personally, it means that when the bill becomes effective I will be eligible for benefits as a family member," she said.

In adopting the new policy, Baltimore joins several major cities, including New York, San Francisco and Seattle, in recognizing gay and lesbian partnerships.

Last summer, Takoma Park became the first municipality in Maryland to extend city benefits to domestic partners. A number of private companies, including Lotus Corp. and Ben and Jerry's ice cream company, also extend benefits to domestic partners of their employees.

Under Baltimore's policy, gay and lesbian partners of city employees and their dependents will be eligible for comprehensive health, vision care and prescription drugs. City employees will also be eligible for bereavement leave in the case of death of their domestic partners.

The city's Gay & Lesbian Employee Domestic Partner Benefits Program Addendum defines domestic partners as "two adults who have chosen to share each other's lives in an intimate and committed relationship" but cannot legally marry because they are of the same sex.

To be eligible for the program, employees are required to submit affidavits saying they share living expenses with their partner and are not involved in another partnership. They are also required to submit evidence of common legal residence, such as drivers' licenses or voter registration cards.

Jesse E. Hoskins, director of the city's Civil Service Commission, said he had "no way of estimating" how many partners of workers might be covered under the new policy.

But Mayor Schmoke told the Board of Estimates that he thought the cost of the policy to the city would be "relatively small."

In Seattle, which extended benefits to a wider range of domestic partnerships than gay and lesbian couples, benefit costs increased just 2 percent, the mayor said.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke suggested extending benefits to "other nontraditional families," who are not gays or lesbians. She cited examples of city workers who have adult children or elderly parents living at home with them. But Mr. Schmoke suggested that that the cost may be a prohibitive factor saying: "The broader the category, the greater the cost."

Legislation before the City Council would establish a citywide registry of domestic partnerships designed to make it easier for nontraditional families to obtain benefits from private employers.

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