Wednesday, September 7, 2011

County Human Relations Commission presses for action on domestic-partner benefits

Posted By on Wed, Sep 7, 2011 at 4:23 PM

After more than a year of prodding, the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission has again asked Dan Onorato to extend domestic partner benefits to county employees.

The HRC previously recommended the county implement domestic-partner benefits last June. And in a Sept. 1 letter, the HRC asks that Onorato take advantage of an upcoming enrollment period to implement the change.

"Based on the experience of comparable public sector employers, and input from Highmark, the benefits can be extended at de minimis cost but will result in priceless improvement to the work culture for the county's LGBT employees," commissioners wrote in the letter. "It will also send a broad message of inclusion, equity and fairness."

The letter also cites a May meeting with Onorato, in which they say the county executive was "optimistic that domestic partner benefits could be extended before the end of the year -- at least for the non-union employees."

Committee chair Hugh McGough says the commission told Onorato in May that "we thought benefits were overdue based on representations he had made previously during his campaign for governor. He understood we are eager for him to take action before his term for county executive expires."

County spokeswoman Judi McNeil says that the administration is currently reviewing the issue and has not yet reached a decision.

The volunteer-led commission has been pushing for the benefits since the group's inception. After all, Onorato tasked them with studying implementation from the group's outset. But the group has largely been met with obstacles from the administration studying the feasibility of the change, and has repeatedly voiced its frustration with the delays. As City Paper has previously noted, one stumbling block has been how the benefit could be offered to union employees; workers are represented by 22 bargaining units and roughly half are in the midst of their four-year contracts.

McGough says that due to such complexities -- each union would have to request the benefit then bargain for it -- the commission's focus has been on securing the benefit for the non-represented workforce.

"You can't change terms and conditions of employment, even it's for the better. It can only be done through the negotiations process," McGough says. "We can't unilaterally change labor law."



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