School contracts at risk

Unions weigh rejecting pacts after Balto. Co, drops partner benefits

May 24, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

A surprise decision by the Baltimore County school board to strip domestic partner benefits from recently negotiated labor contracts threatens to upend the tentative settlement - and runs counter to a national trend of more employers offering medical coverage to unmarried couples.

The board's move Tuesday night stunned union leaders, who say they had been led to believe that this was the year that the county school system would join other large employers in offering the coverage.

"This is not the first time we have brought this to the board and it seemed to be supported during the process," Lisa Norrington, a teacher at Patapsco High School who serves on the teachers union board of directors, said yesterday.

Now the tentative agreements seem in danger of collapsing, union leaders said. Norrington said she had received about 30 e-mails by early afternoon yesterday from members who recommended that the system's five unions reject the board's approved package, which includes an average 4 percent raise for about 13,000 workers.

"People are saying we should not vote on a contract that doesn't have a domestic partner benefit," she said.

School board President Donald L. Arnold said that the panel eliminated the provision because the language in the agreement specified that it would cover same-sex partners, but did not mention opposite-sex partners.

"It's very simple," he said last night. "The cost is not the holdup. The issue is equity."

He said the unions could resubmit their proposals with language covering opposite-sex partners for a board vote but that he could not ensure such a proposal would be approved.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said union negotiators have consistently said that the provision could apply to opposite-sex unmarried partners.

Arnold said last night that the school system is assessing the cost of providing benefits to domestic partners.

Bost said, "I'm hoping I can take them at face value that they're looking at the cost and not just stalling to get this to go away."

Among school systems in the metropolitan region, Baltimore City schools offer domestic partner benefits to all employees. Howard County offers them only to same-sex partners, while Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties don't offer them at all.

The Baltimore County school board's action comes as more employers across the nation are extending medical coverage to unmarried partners, research shows. The benefit is a low-cost way to attract and keep qualified workers while fostering a diverse workplace, studies have found.

In its 2006 benefits survey, the Society of Human Resources Management found that 42 percent of the nearly 400 companies that responded to their questionnaire offered some form of domestic partner benefits. That group found that employer participation in such benefits had increased over a five-year span.

In addition, the survey indicated that for the second consecutive year, the number of employers offering the benefit to all unmarried couples was comparable to the number offering it to same-sex partners.

To qualify for such benefits domestic partners must be responsible for each other's well-being, generally meaning that they must have lived together for at least a year and must share financial responsibilities, said Ken McDonnell, program director for the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

A Society of Human Resources Management and Commerce Clearing House survey in 1999 found domestic partnership coverage to be one of the top three benefits sought by employees.

McDonnell said much has changed since the late 1980s when employers worried that their health-care costs would skyrocket because of AIDS-related care for what they thought would be mostly gay workers and their partners under the domestic partner coverage.

He said those employers who offer the benefit to only same-sex couples tend to experience low participation, mostly because there aren't as many gay workers as heterosexual staff, and both partners in gay couples tend to have their own coverage.

For most employers, domestic partner benefits add less than 1 percent to their costs, according to a 2005 study conducted by Hewitt Associates, a global human resources consulting firm.

McDonnell said a major shift in attitude came in 1996 when IBM began offering the benefits.

Seeing a huge employer latch onto the idea "gave big legitimacy to it," he said.

A school system, McDonnell said, might feel conflicted about adding the benefit.

"They might not want to seem to be seen as teaching homosexuality to kids," he said.

Melanie Nolet, who heads the health and physical education department at Patapsco High School, said she hopes the unions hold fast on the issue.

"The county trains its teachers to create an atmosphere of tolerance and diversity in the classroom and with our students' families," said Nolet, who said her partner is a woman on leave from her teaching job at a county school. "If they want to retain highly qualified teachers, we need to be made to feel we're valued and considered equal in this system."

Bost said the unions have been pressing for the domestic partner benefit for six years. She said that about a month ago the school system's negotiators asked the unions to consider changing their proposal - which requested benefits only for same-sex partners - to include coverage for opposite-sex partners.

Union leaders said yesterday they don't know whether they'll recommend that their members reject the board's approved contracts, but they hope to see the provision included in an agreement their members can accept.

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