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Since its first meeting nearly 10 months ago, Allegheny County's Human Relations Commission has focused on getting domestic-partner benefits passed for county employees. No one is sure how much longer it'll have to wait.  

The commission, which was created in July 2009 and began meeting in May of last year, was tasked by County Executive Dan Onorato to study implementing the benefits, which allow same-sex couples to receive family health insurance just as married couples do. And in June, the seven-member group made a formal recommendation "that Allegheny County take steps to make domestic partner benefits available to its employees."

That was the easy part. 

Allegheny County has 6,400 employees currently covered under a Highmark health plan. Workers are represented by 22 bargaining units, roughly half of which are in the middle of four-year contracts. That complicates matters, says human-resources director Kathleen Kennedy, because "We want to maintain consistency so all employees stay on the same plan." 

"We've asked the law department to review how to accomplish this" without treating workers unequally, Kennedy adds.

At monthly meetings, HRC commissioners have discussed whether benefits could be offered to non-union employees first, thus rolling out the benefits to some employees as soon as possible. Kennedy has said the law department is studying that possibility, but adds that the plan is to maintain consistency. "I don't see non-union employees being offered the benefit first." The policy decision is in the hands of county administrators.

Onorato made no mention of the issue at a Jan. 13 press conference announcing his priorities for the year. Still, spokesperson Megan Dardanell says the plans he mentioned "weren't a complete list." 

"The county executive believes all people should be treated equally ... as evidenced by his signing of the historic legislation" that formed the HRC, she says.

"We have every reason to believe implementation is imminent," says HRC chair Hugh McGough, citing a county update and minutes from a December meeting that say benefits should be rolled out in the first quarter of 2011.  

"Our goal would have been to do it in 2010," McGough says. "We will do our best to keep the pressure on."

"It's the right thing to do," says commissioner Sara Davis Buss, noting that city employees already receive domestic-partner benefits, as do employees in the state court system and Pittsburgh Public Schools.

"The county should want to be competitive with other employers in the region to get and retain good people," Buss says.

There would be some added costs for the county: Health care costs the county roughly $480 per month for each employee; a spouse adds nearly $800 to the monthly bill. Workers seeking the benefits might also end up paying more: Under federal law, health benefits for a married spouse are nontaxable. But that tax exemption doesn't extend to domestic-partner benefits, because federal law doesn't recognize same-sex relationships. That means employees will have to pay taxes on the health coverage provided to their partners. 

Despite these challenges, commissioners are getting tired of waiting. "I know we're moving forward," says commissioner Barbara Daly Danko, "but we're taking tiny baby steps when all we need is a giant step."

Advocates note frustration as well. Sue Kerr, who authors the blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, has long been a critic of Onorato's handling of the issue. 

"It's going to take some political will to get this passed," says Kerr. In the meantime, she adds, "for some people, it's a matter of life and death."

click to enlarge County Executive Dan Onorato is the key to achieving domestic-partner benefits for county employees. - CHRIS YOUNG
  • Chris Young
  • County Executive Dan Onorato is the key to achieving domestic-partner benefits for county employees.

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