Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Spouses of Gay Public Employees Eligible for Benefits

By Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune

Lisa Moore, an English and women’s and gender studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been waiting 24 years for the university to extend benefits to the same-sex partners of its gay and lesbian employees.

After leaving Cornell University, which offered benefits to same-sex partners, she took her post at UT in 1991 expecting that benefits for same-sex couples were “around the corner.” While waiting for the school to turn that corner, she became a vocal critic of the university’s policy.

“If someone had told me in 1991, ‘You won’t get benefits for 24 years,’ I think I would’ve left,” said Moore, who legally married her longtime partner in 2011 in Canada. “Our joke back in the '90s was ‘Oh, gay marriage will be legal in Texas before UT will give us same-sex partner benefits.’ And that’s actually what came to pass.”

As of Wednesday, public employers including Texas agencies, universities and schools will allow current and retired gay and lesbian employees to enroll their same-sex spouses in the same benefit programs and services available to opposite-sex couples.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas, the University of Texas System, the Texas A&M University System and the Employees Retirement System — which oversees benefits for state employees and all other public universities and community colleges — changed their policies days after the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and that states must recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Prior to the court’s ruling, Texas law prohibited same-sex spouses from being included as an “eligible dependent” on health insurance plans subsidized by the state. (Texas pays 50 percent of the health insurance premiums for state employees.)

It was initially unclear when public employers would extend benefits to spouses of married gay employees. But by Monday, most had revised their policies to accommodate same-sex spouses and announced they would open enrollment Wednesday.

How many employees will sign up their same-sex spouses or dependent children won't be known for months, but representatives with the systems said they've heard from several interested active and retired employees.

Catherine Terrell, director of governmental affairs for the Employees Retirement System, estimated that about 1,500 individuals — who could include same-sex spouses and dependent children of those spouses — would immediately sign up for benefits.

“Of course, people will continue to enroll their spouses throughout the year as they marry,” she added.

Professors at Texas' public universities celebrated the extension of benefits, saying the policy change will offer relief for many gay and lesbian employees and reduce the rate at which they leave Texas institutions in search of schools that accommodate same-sex couples.

Patrick Burkart, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, said extending benefits for same-sex couples will put the university on the “same competitive footing” as other research universities across the country because it will help retain and recruit top faculty and staffers.

“What we’re going to find out is how expensive it’s been to keep a discriminatory policy on the books as we have,” said Burkart, the secretary and treasurer of the A&M chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which has pushed for the benefits for years.

Burkart, who has served on several faculty search committees, indicated that the previous policy denying benefits to same-sex spouses or partners kept potential candidates from applying for posts at the school.

Hundreds of colleges across the country offer benefits to same-sex spouses or same-sex domestic partners.

”I think our university has suffered for it, and now is a great time to catch up and gather our strengths,” Burkart said.

Echoing national and state gay rights leaders, the professors indicated that their fight for equality at Texas institutions was far from over because the state lacks statewide discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is a seminal piece in realizing full equality, and I am confident that the senate will renew its advocacy,” said Michel Conroy, chairwoman of the Texas State University Faculty Senate, which years ago endorsed spousal benefits for same-sex couples.

Though the professors say there’s much left to do on the discrimination front, they still plan to celebrate the revised benefits policies on Wednesday.

Several LGBT professors and staffers at UT-Austin are planning to meet at the HR office at 4 p.m. to turn in enrollment paperwork at the same time, said Moore, the professor.

“It’s an unequivocal win for us,” she said. “This is something we wanted. It’s something we worked hard for over years, and it’s something we won.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Texas State University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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