The Unromantic Reason Couples May Soon Be Tying the Knot

The Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage could have couples scrambling to the altar—but not for the reason you might think.
(Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
May 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As the country awaits the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, some companies are dismantling programs that extend benefits to employees in domestic partnerships. These companies are effectively telling employees in domestic partnerships: Get married or lose your benefits.

The development is taking shape at companies such as Verizon and Delta, which have told employees in the 37 states that have legalized same-sex unions that benefits for same-sex domestic partners will no longer be available unless they marry. Verizon announced the policy change last July and is giving couples six months to marry or lose their domestic partner benefits.

“It’s just to bring the benefits in line with today, as many states have legalized same-sex marriage and leveled the playing field,” Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesperson, told TakePart. Verizon and Delta currently offer domestic partner benefits only to same-sex couples. But many companies have broadened these policies to include opposite-sex couples too.

While domestic partner benefits were originally created to meet the needs of same-sex couples who couldn’t legally marry, the status has been embraced by unmarried employees in opposite-sex relationships seeking to share benefits with their partners. There is no formal data on how many opposite-sex couples use these benefits. But of the 66 percent of Fortune 500 companies that offer domestic partner benefits, 62 percent offer them to same- and opposite-sex partners, said Deena Fidas, head of the Human Rights Campaign’s workplace equality program.

Bob Witeck is a Washington communications strategist who was a pioneer in pushing companies to adopt policies that support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. He expects the shift in benefits policies may negatively impact opposite-sex unmarried couples. One reason: The cost of benefits is constantly rising, so eliminating benefits for employees in unmarried partnerships is a natural consideration for companies that want to cut costs. But eliminating such benefits is potentially tricky. “Not all relationships are the same,” Witeck told TakePart. “Requiring a marriage license to get benefits for your employees is a bad business decision. There may be financial incentives for people to get married, but people don’t get married on the basis merely of cost benefits and reward.”

Other companies offer domestic partner benefits only to same-sex couples, which is another place where things may get complicated. “That’s where you may see reverse discrimination lawsuits saying you’re treating the minority more favorably than the majority,” Todd Solomon, a partner with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, told Takepart. While those types of lawsuits have been filed before by heterosexual couples, it’s easier for lawyers to defend benefits only available to same-sex couples when they do not legally have access to marriage. If the Supreme Court decides to legalize same-sex marriage across the country and these companies continue to offer domestic partner benefits, opposite-sex unmarried couples who want to challenge their employer’s choice will have a leg up.

This isn’t a new concern for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocates. When Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, advocacy groups published a statement anticipating that companies would begin eliminating domestic partner benefits. They noted that domestic partner benefits policies were intended to acknowledge “family diversity in the workplace, not as a temporary solution until same-sex couples have the option of marriage.” Their list of concerns appears prophetic today.

Navigating the tricky balance of managing benefits is nothing new for many unmarried same-sex couples. Dana Rudolph, publisher of the LGBTQ parenting blog Mombian, faced a tough decision in 2006 when she and her partner of 13 years prepared to move from New York to Massachusetts. Her partner Helen’s new job in Massachusetts didn’t offer domestic partner benefits because the state had legalized same-sex marriage. Rudolph had previously relied on Helen’s benefits in New York, where they could not yet legally marry. Rudolph was planning to stay in New York to sell their house for several months before joining her partner. “The only way I’d have medical coverage was for us to wed—but Massachusetts was not yet letting out-of-state same-sex couples marry there,” she told TakePart.

Ultimately, the couple convinced a town clerk in Massachusetts that they intended to live in the state. They were allowed to quickly marry so Rudolph could be covered by her wife’s benefits plan. “Even leaving aside the now-irrelevant out-of-state hurdle, would we have liked more time to plan a ceremony after 13 years together? Yes,” Rudolph said. “After 13 years together, however, we ended up with a shotgun wedding.”