Keystone State Extends Same-Sex Benefits

Pennsylvania recently became the sixth state to allow gay and/or lesbian employees to use family or sick leave time to care for their domestic partner.

The provision allowing use of sick leave, which had been on the table in union negotiations for more than a decade, was included in the four-year contract between the state and 13,000 members of the Pennsylvania Social Service Union (PSSU) and other affiliated locals of Service Employees International Union.

"Governor Rendell has a history of supporting gay rights in a general sense. This was a very easy thing. It essentially costs you nothing and may increase productivity," said Bob Barnett, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Administration. Under the provision, employees are able to use sick days to care for their partner. Barnett conjectured that sick days were probably used all along for such purposes, but employees never volunteered the information.

"People took time off and said they were sick but they were taking care of someone. Now, the time off is officially being paid for," Barnett opined.

Prior to this contract, state employees could legally use the sick days to care for family members, but not for domestic partners of the same sex. Barnett said that most likely the same-sex provision will also be offered to12,000 non-union and managerial employees not covered by the agreement.

"We are not endorsing (homosexual relationships), just recognizing they exist. We are being fair about it," Barnett said.

According to Lambda, the gay/lesbian advocacy group, the other states with similar benefits for state employees are California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont. Other states, however, also offer medical benefits for some state employees in same-sex relationships. Those states are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Barnett said the new benefit would not have any impact on the state budget.

"There will be no significant cost. We are not giving any new leave. Employees will merely use the leave in a different way. If they don't use it, they get a payout at the end anyway," Barnett explained. Joan Bruce, president of PSSU, said the benefit was long in coming.

"We have had it in our proposals dating back to the early 90s. Normally they just ignored it. This time they didn't. By doing this, they are recognizing gay relationships, but in a small way," Bruce said.

Jennifer Pizer, a spokesperson for Lambda, agreed with Bruce's assessment.

"The discussion of same-sex benefits is happening in every state: How to provide equitable and fair benefits given limited budgets? It is very heartening for Pennsylvania to do this. It is a sensible, pragmatic first step that has no price tag," Pizer said.

Barnett said the exact criteria defining what a domestic partner is for the sake of this benefit is being developed.

Barnett added that Rendell, formerly the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, recently issued an executive order defining protected classes, including those with gender identity issues. He added that the proposed head of the State Human Relations Commission is an openly gay male.

Some legislators have expressed opposition to the new benefit and have said they would try to "defund" that portion of the contract. However, Barnett said that was unlikely because the original benefit -- sick days -- is already part of all contracts.