WASHINGTON – While the noisy debate over same-sex marriage drags on, a growing number of local governments and businesses have quietly granted spousal-type benefits to gay employees — but stopped just one step short of the altar.
Forty Maryland businesses and four local governments currently provide “domestic partner” benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees, up from just one business in 1995, according to a study by the Human Rights Campaign.
For businesses, the decision was just that — business, not a moral question.
“We have to look at what’s best for the future of Lockheed Martin and the work force is becoming more and more diverse,” said company spokeswoman Meghan Mariman. “We need to be able to attract and retain our talent.”
The Bethesda-based Fortune 500 Company, which employs 125,000 people worldwide and 6,500 in Maryland, added domestic partners to its health care coverage in July.
With health-care costs increasing by double-digit percentages over the past three years, providing that additional coverage takes a large financial commitment by a company. Lockheed Martin pays about $6,500 per year in health insurance costs for each enrolled employee.
Mariman said that based on market research of other large employers in the same situation, Lockheed Martin does not anticipate “a significant financial impact.” Besides, she said, “It’s more important to us to have an all inclusive work environment.”
At Verizon, the decision to expand health benefits to domestic partners had as much to do with their customers as their employees, said company spokeswoman Gwen Sparks. The company has had the benefit since 1996.
“We want our workforce to mirror our customer base,” she said. Same-sex households account for 10 percent of all unmarried households in Maryland, according to the 2000 Census.
As more and more homosexuals feel safer coming out, companies cannot ignore their financial influence, Sparks said. “They’ve got buying power.”
In addition to Lockheed Martin and Verizon other large Maryland-based businesses that offer the benefits include Discovery Communications, Allegheny Energy, and Marriott.
Opponents argue that there is nothing to be gained from extending benefits to same-sex partners, in either the private or public sector.
“It’s one thing to be tolerant, it’s another thing to encourage or give approbation to another lifestyle,” said state Delegate Herbert McMillan, R-Anne Arundel. “I don’t have a problem with gay relationships . . . but as a society we’re not under any obligation to encourage them.
“If private companies want to give benefits to gay partners, that’s their prerogative, but I believe that the state should be encouraging the traditional family structure because it’s been proven to be the best vehicle for raising children,” McMillan said.
But several governments in the state disagree: Baltimore, Takoma Park and Montgomery County offer domestic partner benefits to their workers, and the Greenbelt City Council voted Monday to do the same for its 170 employees.
McMillan said “it’s unfair to taxpayers” for governments to offer such benefits. But Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Ike Leggett, who served on the Montgomery County Council when it extended domestic partner benefits to its employees, said the cost is not insurmountable for local governments.
“In Montgomery County, the cost was not prohibitive,” Leggett said. “The cost factor, as I recall, was not a sufficient tax factor.
“Democrats throughout Maryland generally have supported extending benefits,” he said. He added that the state is currently commissioning a study into the economic impact of extending domestic partner benefits statewide.