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No Benefit: County decision to phase out domestic-partner benefits draws fire 

"Does everybody think that just because marriage becomes available, homophobia goes away?"

Editor's Note: This story went to press prior to Wednesday's decision by Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald extending same-sex partner benefits for 11 current county employees for one year. Our updated stories can be found here and here and we will be following the story in our Blogh as news breaks.

Eileen Halloran and her partner have waited years for their decade-long same-sex relationship to be recognized by the state. Yet even after federal Judge John E. Jones III legalized same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania in May, she says, "We're at a standstill."

The reason? Halloran is self-employed and receives health coverage through her partner, an Allegheny County employee enrolled in the county's domestic-partner benefits program. (Halloran's partner did not wish to be identified for this story.) But in June, the county announced it was terminating the benefit for the 11 employees receiving it: Employees wishing to cover their partners would have to furnish a marriage license by the end of July.

The news was "a slap in the face," says Halloran. She'd planned to marry in 2016, she says, but Fitzgerald's timetable left little time for wedding planning: "It's basically telling us to buy a sheet cake and throw a party in the backyard."

On June 30, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told City Paper he was pushing the deadline back, perhaps by three to six months: "We want to treat everybody equally, but the July time-frame is too short."

That may not satisfy critics, who note there's more at stake than picking out a china pattern. Despite Jones' ruling, Pennsylvania doesn't have a statewide law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Given that, Halloran worries that "If we go on record as being married, we wouldn't be protected if we tried to find work in Cranberry" — which unlike Pittsburgh doesn't have an ordinance that covers anti-gay discrimination.

Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor with expertise in LGBT law, calls the county's move a "knee-jerk" reaction. "You're making people get married when they could face discrimination elsewhere as result," says Polikoff, who has long been wary of LGBT advocates' focus on marriage rights. "Does everybody think that just because marriage becomes available, homophobia goes away?"

LGBT activist and blogger Sue Kerr has echoed those concerns in an online petition urging that the county "continue offering domestic-partner benefits until we achieve statewide non-discrimination protection." The petition had more than 500 signatures by press time.

Fitzgerald says the absence of statewide anti-discrimination protections "concerns me a bit." But while "we can't make things perfect, we're trying to treat people fairly." He notes that providing the domestic-partner benefits was one of his first acts as county executive: "We did it because folks of the same gender did not have the same rights to marry. ... I'm not doing this to hurt people."

There is some question about whether Fitzgerald can change the benefits just yet. Once established, benefits for union employees — including Halloran's partner — "have to be negotiated with the union," says Richard Grejda, spokesperson for SEIU Local 668. The local represents more than 1,000 county employees, and Grejda says, "The county cannot arbitrarily change the terms of employment." Such changes can only be carried out through negotiations — and "Even then, we'll ask that anybody currently receiving the benefits be grandfathered in."

The county isn't alone in facing these questions. The city of Pittsburgh, whose Personnel Department says there are 45 employees receiving benefits for either same-sex or opposite-sex partners, is also reviewing its policies after Jones' ruling. So are the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Allegheny County School Health Insurance Consortium, which oversees health coverage for most suburban school districts. Seven local districts provide benefits for domestic partners: Jan Klein, who chairs the consortium board, says the board is likely to decide this summer whether to phase them out.

If the benefits are discontinued, Klein says, "We'd probably say, ‘We will no longer offer [partner benefits] as of a certain date, or as the end of a contract allows it — whichever comes later.'"

Ironically, the status quo costs Halloran more than she'd be paying if she got married. Under federal law, benefits for partners are considered taxable income; spousal benefits are not.

The tax bill "costs us dearly," Halloran says. But she's willing to go on paying, in part to avoid a reprise of her first marriage, which was a civil ceremony before a judge. (Halloran came out years later.)

"It wasn't the wedding you dreamed of," she says. "My partner deserves the wedding she always wanted. "

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