Sep 11, 2005

Brain Gain: Domestic Partner Benefits As A Tool For Regional Growth


Drs. Carol Bresnahan and Michelle Stecker

The flurry of state initiatives in the last election seeking to ban same-sex marriages has brought the issue of domestic partner benefits to the attention of mainstream America.

“Domestic partner benefits were not a national issue until conservatives led a drive to get gay marriage bans on the ballot last year,” said Dr. Carol Bresnahan, a professor at the University of Toledo. “What was a mundane human resource matter has now made the headlines.”

The movement to offer benefits to the same-sex partners and opposite-sex unmarried partners of employees traces its roots to the Village Voice newspaper, which began the practice in 1981.

Over the past 20 years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of institutions – both public and private – that offer benefits to couples not falling under the traditional definitions of marriage. Firms as diverse as Microsoft, Aetna, and the Walt Disney Company offer some form of benefits to employees who are in non-traditional relationships, and a number of states and municipalities have followed the trend.

Owens Corning and WTVG-13 are among the Toledo-based corporations that offer DP.

Toledo City Council President Louis Escobar said that benefits to city employees vary by union contract.

“The police and fire contracts offer death and sick leave benefits to union members,” he said. “I have urged the other city union leaders to push for these benefits as contracts come up for renegotiation.”

Bresnahan, who is also a university vice-provost, said that employers have several compelling reasons for adopting more inclusive benefits packages.

“Many employers recognize that this is an issue of fairness,” she said. “However, every institution that offers DP benefits recognizes that it just makes good business sense to attract the most talented employees – regardless of the type of relationship they are in.”

Bresnahan believes that employers in Northwest Ohio - which has suffered from the perception of a regional “brain drain” due to the exodus of talented residents - would be well advised to recognize the value of offering DP benefits.

“DP benefits are one way to reverse this trend,” she said. “Losing skilled people due to a reputation of being intolerant would not be in the region’s best interests.”

The region of Northwest Ohio has suffered from significant population losses in the past few decades. According to the Census Bureau, Lucas County experienced a decline of over 11,000 residents from 1990 to 2004. Toledo has lost over 23,000 residents in that period.

UT and DP Benefits
A lucrative job offer last December at an eastern university almost lured Bresnahan from UT after two decades.

“The ad for the position prominently displayed a disclaimer that DP benefits were part of the package,” she said. “Had my circumstances been different, I would have taken the job.”

In Ohio, five of the nine major public universities - Ohio State University, Cleveland State, Youngstown State, Miami University and Ohio University – currently offer such benefits.

The University of Toledo, however, offers benefits only to employees in traditional marriages. Bresnahan said that there has been an active movement at UT to achieve benefits parity for over a decade.

“The issue was before the Board of Trustees last summer, but the matter was shelved after the November elections,” said Bresnahan.

Domestic partner benefits have since sparked contentious debate at the University of Toledo, where BOT President Dan Brennan has steadfastly refused to bring the issue up for a vote. At a February meeting of the trustees, several dozen protestors staged a silent demonstration against what they perceive as an effort by the Board to silence them.

Each of the protestors marched into the meeting, mouths covered with tape, and hummed in solidarity. One of the most prominent in the demonstration was Dr. Michelle Stecker, a local minister and historian who is also finishing a law degree at UT. She and Bresnahan are partners, and own a home not far from campus.

“The Board has been using the passage of Issue 1 as an excuse to avoid taking action on DP benefits,” she said. “However, the University’s own law professors have advised the Board that the school will not run afoul of the law by offering DP benefits.”

Escobar, who is also concurrently employed at UT, agreed.

“It is my understanding that one member of the Board had concerns that DP benefits would be in conflict with Issue 1,” he said. “This was a poorly-written law designed by people who wanted to use gays as a way to stir up religious conservatives and get them to the polls.”

UT President Dan Johnson has steadfastly supported DP benefits in recent public statements. Bresnahan believes that the movement will ultimately prevail.

“I have heard that the Board will review the issue again this month,” she said, adding that she was “cautiously optimistic” that the measure will be passed.

Misconceptions and Lost Opportunities

The public holds a number of misconceptions regarding DP benefits, said Bresnahan. One of the most common is that this is only an issue among gays.

“This issue affects everyone, because it is ultimately a matter of civil rights,” she said. “The elections of last November have caused many fair-minded people to recognize that there are larger principles at stake.”

Another misconception is the idea that the proverbial floodgates would open, and institutions would be swamped with requests for coverage.

“There is a great deal of statistical evidence demonstrating that DP benefits have very little effect on insurance costs,” said Bresnahan. “When the University of Illinois began a DP program last year, only 12 individuals- out of a community of 39,000 people – signed up at the first open enrollment.”

Escobar agreed.

“Many people use the excuse that DP benefits are an undue cost, but studies show that is not the case,” he said. “Why is it acceptable to discriminate against people who do not fall under the definition of ‘traditional marriage’?”

Left: Toledo City Council President Louis Escobar

A 2000 study by Hewitt Associates, a global human resource consultant, found that only 1.2% of employees eligible for DP actually used them.

Bresnahan said that the University’s reluctance to offer DP benefits has a number of negative consequences.

“During a hiring search this spring, each of the three finalists for the position brought up the subject,” she said. “Anecdotally, I have heard of a number of talented candidates who passed up UT positions to take opportunities at institutions that offer DP benefits.”

Stecker echoed this observation.

“At UT’s law school, I have been told that we have lost several applicants who changed their minds upon finding out that DP benefits are not offered here,” she said. “The University’s ability to attract the best and the brightest is limited by its benefits package.”

Escobar said that communities that discriminate will find that other regions are more than willing to welcome non-traditional couples.

“I would hope that communities in Northwest Ohio would recognize that it is important to attract the most talented citizens, regardless of race, color, religion, or sexual orientation,” he said.

When Serious Illness Strikes
While many of her coworkers have been sympathetic to Bresnahan’s fight for equality, the ramifications of the problem became much more apparent in March, when her partner contracted viral meningitis.

“My friends at work suddenly understood why this is such an important issue,” said Bresnahan. “We did not qualify for the things that most employees take for granted: hospitalization coverage, prescription benefits, and family leave.”

Stecker - who was in poor health for many weeks – said the couple has been hit with substantial medical bills.

“One prescription alone was $480,” she said, adding that bills from her illness may exceed ten thousand dollars. “The uninsured of this country run a risk of financial ruin if they get seriously ill.”

Escobar related a similar anecdote.

“I was in between jobs in the 1990s and suffered a heart attack,” he said. “My partner’s insurance did not cover me, despite the fact that we have been together 16 years. The only thing that saved me from incurring huge hospital bills was that I was able to get COBRA benefits from my previous job.”

Bresnahan said that the University’s unwillingness to extend benefits to employees makes its official commitments to diversity ring hollow.

“If the University professes that it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, then it should honor that commitment,” she said. “Otherwise, employees become skeptical, and the net result is that people do not trust in UT’s sincerity.”

The net result of the University’s stance on DP benefits, according to both women, is that UT places more value in the work of employees who happen to be in traditional marriages.

Bresnahan saw a number of positive developments as a result of the current struggle.

“The anti-gay ballot initiatives last year galvanized people from all walks of life to recognize this threat on civil liberties,” she said. “But I am most moved by my students, many of whom have been active in standing up for equality.”

This is an extended version of an article I wrote for the Toledo Free Press in June.


Hooda Thunkit said...


On these issues I (a thinking conservative) couldn't agree with you more.

(My disagreement with anything even remotely related to the broader topic is miniscule by comparison and revolves around only one word.)

Great message!

Anonymous said...

Homosexuality is against God.

historymike said...

Anonymous: God, I believe, has little use for hate and intolerance. Spend more time reading the Gospels and less time dredging though Deuterotomy.

Hooda: Thank you for your (as usual) very keen eye and ability to see beyond the political polemics found in the typical us-them debate. It is very hard to categorize people like you in simple right-left terms (except with a term like "free thinker").

Hooda Thunkit said...


"It is very hard to categorize people like you in simple right-left terms (except with a term like "free thinker")."

Free thinker, yes that fits;-)

And, Thank You, for the compliment!

Being a free thinker (sorting out the fudge from the foibles, of both sides) has finally made me realize that I didn't fit into either of the current parties.

And, I suspect that I am not alone...

Anonymous said...

Leviticus 18:22 "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination."

Leviticus 20:13 "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them."

Romans 1:26-27 "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence [sic] of their error which was meet."

I Corinthians 6:9-10 "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God."

God has written and those who practice homosexuality shall be damned

historymike said...

Again, I ask you to read the Gospels, anonymous poster, to understand Christ:

How about Luke (9:55-56)
But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.
For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." And they went to another village.

or Matthew (22:36-40)
"Master, which is the great commandment in the law?"
Jesus said unto him, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Show me in the Bible where Christ condemns homosexuality.

(Here's a hint - it can't be done, unless you twist His words).

I do not look to the writer Paul when I want to understand my religion - Christianity. I look to the closest thing to Christ's own words I can find - the Gospels.

Anonymous said...

You can twist God's word all you want. You know it is wrong and gays will burn in hell if they don't change but you still try to lead people astray. You will burn with them for twisting Gods word.

historymike said...

We'll have to agree to disagree, friend.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday, UT members of CWA Local 4319 voted on their proposed health insurance contract. The union recommended voting against it. I wonder, if it's voted down, if the Board of Trustees will still be willing to reconsider domestic partner benefits. I think certin individuals will use any excuse possible to "legally" discriminate.

historymike said...

Brennan, in particular, seems to fit that profile. I remember watching him tapdance around the issue at a faculty senate meeting last year; he never actually answered the question, but gave a lot of phony-sounding touchy-feely stuff that lulled many people into sleep (at least Clinton and Bush can sound like they have compassion).