The White House has issued a series of rule changes in recent weeks to expand benefits for gay and lesbian federal employees' same-sex partners. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff file photo)
For the first time, the Office of Personnel Management is extending new benefits to the unmarried domestic partners of straight federal employees, as it has done previously for gay employees' partners.
As of July 14, unmarried employees, gay and straight, will be able to take up to 13 days of paid sick leave to care for their domestic partners or their partners' relatives, or to make funeral arrangements for them if they have died, just as their married co-workers can take family and medical leave for family responsibilities. Agencies will also be able to advance up to 13 days of sick leave if an employee is out of accrued leave.
If an employee's partner or partner's relative has a serious health condition, such as cancer, a heart attack, a stroke or Alzheimer's disease, the employee will be able to use up to 12 weeks of sick leave per year to help care for them. Federal agencies will be able to advance employees up to 30 days of sick leave beyond the 12 weeks in those situations.
This is the latest in a series of rule changes the administration has issued in recent weeks to expand benefits for gay and lesbian federal employees' same-sex partners. As of July 1, employees will be able to add their same-sex partners to their long-term care policies. And a June 2 memo from President Obama declared same-sex partners and their partners' children eligible for child care subsidies and services, credit union membership, fitness facility and counseling services, life insurance coverage, and other forms of employee assistance.
The latest rule change, detailed in a June 14 Federal Register notice, extends the definition of family member to include domestic partners, as well as the partners' parents, children or grandchildren and other relatives.
The long-term care and other previously announced benefits are not available to straight employees with domestic partners. OPM previously said it excluded unmarried heterosexual couples from these benefit expansions because they can obtain them through marriage. OPM did not comment on why it decided now to extend the sick leave and funeral leave benefits to unmarried opposite-sex couples.
These changes do not extend to unpaid leave offered under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Changes to FMLA would have to be approved by Congress.
Linda Lulli, associate vice president for human resources at Bryant University in Rhode Island and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said the changes reflect the fact that Americans are increasingly living in unmarried domestic partnerships, and more gay and lesbian couples are openly living together.
The U.S. Census found that the number of households with unmarried partners grew from 3.2 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2000. In 2000, 4.9 million of those households contained opposite-sex partners.
"This is a sign of the changing demographics and times," Lulli said. "There's really going to be a need for employers to look at more flexibilities, and design [benefit] plans that have some customization to meet the needs of their employees."
A new report from SHRM found that 14 percent of public- and private-sector employers nationwide offer benefits other than health care to both gay and straight employees' domestic partners. And larger employers are more likely to offer those benefits, SHRM found. Among employers with more than 500 workers, 24 percent offer benefits to employees' same-sex domestic partners, and 22 percent offer benefits to employees' opposite-sex domestic partners.
The federal government employs an estimated 34,000 gay and lesbian workers who are in domestic partnerships. OPM said it did not have estimates of how many federal employees were in unmarried opposite-sex domestic partnerships.
Most federal experts applauded the changes, and said they were long overdue.
But former OPM Director Michael Hager said he's concerned about how much the expanded benefits will cost the government. Hager said it is unwise to expand benefits at a time when the government's $1.4 trillion annual deficit has become a serious political issue and conservative lawmakers are criticizing federal employees' compensation.
"This is a significant cost item," Hager said. "One week, we talk about a wage freeze for all of the federal government, and shortly after that, we talk about expanding benefits. Now is not the time to demonstrate to the private sector that we're different and we don't have to be held accountable for costs."
OPM spokesman Marcus Williams said the agency did not have an estimate on how much extending the benefits would cost, but said it will likely be minimal.
Henry Romero, a senior adviser at Federal Management Partners and a former OPM executive, said the changes are necessary to keep the government competitive and keep talented employees from leaving for other jobs that already allow leave for domestic partners.
"It's not a breakthrough move," Romero said. "OPM's moves are just reflective of the general trend in industry. OPM is catching up."
Romero said he believes most managers until now have been sticking to the letter of the law and not allowing employees to take sick leave to attend to their partners or partners' relatives.
"If everybody was looking the other way, there probably wouldn't have been a need to change the regulations," Romero said.
Richard Byrd, commissioner for the Internal Revenue Service's wage and investment division, said he doubts the changes would result in lost productivity.
"If [employees are] distracted with things at home then they aren't as effective at the office," Byrd said.
Byrd also said his employees often step up to cover for co-workers who must attend to personal matters, and doubts many people will abuse the benefit.
Segundo Pereira, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Employment Opportunity at the Health and Human Services Department, said the government may have had to extend the benefits to both gay and straight employees to avoid disparate treatment.
The recent benefit expansions signal that OPM is moving toward extending as yet unavailable health care coverage and survivor annuities to gay and lesbian federal employees' partners, said David Snell, benefits expert for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. The White House has called on Congress to pass House and Senate bills that would make same-sex domestic partners eligible for the same benefits as married heterosexual spouses of federal employees.
"OPM is setting the groundwork for that," Snell said.
But in the June 14 Federal Register notice, OPM drew the line at one commenter's request. The unnamed commenter unsuccessfully asked for sick leave to be expanded further, to allow employees to care for an ill pet.
"I guess for some people, their pets are their children," Snell said.