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Thursday, June 3, 2010

County HRC endorses domestic partner benefits

Posted By on Thu, Jun 3, 2010 at 6:05 PM

In only its second meeting, the fledgling Allegheny County Human Relations Commission has recommended that county government begin offering domestic-partner benefits to employees. 

The statement -- unanmiously approved by the five members attending this morning's meeting -- reads as follows:

Whereas the City of Pittsburgh has made domestic partner health benefits available to its employees for approximately a decade, and,

Whereas in recent years benefits of this nature have been made available by other public employers including the Pittsburgh School District, Pennsylvania’s Court System, and many colleges and universities;

It is hereby resolved that the Commission recommends that Allegheny County take steps to make domestic partner benefits available to its employees.

The statement is, obviously, fairly general -- deliberately so, says commission chair Hugh McGough. 

"We specifically declined to get involved in the nitty-gritty" details, he says. For example, the commission has taken no position on whether domestic partner benefits should be offered to same-sex couples only, or to straight-but-unmarried couples as well. 

"We are volunteers working on issues of fairness," said McGough. And unlike the city's HRC, for example, the county commission has no paid staff of its own; it relies on support from the county's Human Relations department. Accordingly, McGough says, the commission chose to make a broad statement of support for fairness in paying benefits, while defering to paid staff on questions of implementation.

The commission issued the statement in response to a request from county executive Dan Onorato, who wanted a recommendation on the wisdom of offering benefits for unmarried couples. Since taking up that charge at its first meeting last month, McGough says, the group looked at benefits policies as practiced elsewhere -- within Pittsburgh city government, the Pittsburgh school district, and the state court system. While there was some discussion of tax issues -- under federal law, benefits for an unmarried partner count as taxable wages -- McGough says, "The city found ways to deal with that years ago."

McGough adds that, if requested by Onorato or county council, the commission would look at more specific questions -- about whether to offer domestic-partner benefits to unmarried straights, for example. In the meantime, he says, the commission is working on coming up with rules for handling complaints of discriminatory behavior.  The county commision's bylaws, McGough says, will likely take their cues from the rules already in place at the city.

Commission members voting in favor of the langage were McGough, Sara Davis Buss, Barbara Daly Danko, Stephan Broadus and Cynthia Baldwin.  Commissioners Mark Nowak and La'Tasha Mayes were absent.

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