Sue Kerr

PA Lesbian Couple: Ending Domestic Partner Benefits is 'Unbearable Crisis'

Filed By Sue Kerr | July 02, 2014 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Allegheny County, domestic partner benefits, Eileen Halloran, marriage equality, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Philly Gay News, Pittsburgh

allegheny-county-pennsylvania.gifEileen Halloran has knee replacement surgery scheduled for late August and will have to schedule a hysterectomy soon afterwards. She and her partner, an employee of Allegheny County, have carefully coordinated their respective health needs and recuperation periods. They've also begun to plan a 2016 wedding in light of the May ruling legalizing same sex marriage in Pennsylvania. (While supporting Eileen's public statements, her partner has asked not to be identified using her name.)

Eileen and her partner have been together for ten years and have three adult children and two grandchildren. They currently live in Allegheny County in southwestern Pennsylvania, and their careful plans for their health and their relationship are now up in the air: last week, Allegheny County announced plans to eliminate domestic partner benefits for employees effective July 31, 2014.

Halloran likens this deadline to a county mandate to get married:

"Part of my disgust is the fact that same-sex couples just celebrated throughout Pennsylvania that finally we can get married. Now, a month later, Allegheny County employees are being treated with no worth in regard to their unions. Do it the county way or else."

While acknowledging that the county isn't responsible for the type of wedding employees can plan, she does believe that they are showing disregard for the realities facing same-sex couples in the only marriage equality state without statewide non-discrimination protections.

"It's frightening to know that once my partner and I get married or even if we are not married, we can travel to Cranberry Township in Butler County to meet a friend for dinner and be discriminated against just for being us, two people who love one another. We can be refused service.

"I have friends who live in Butler County that live two lives, just to maintain employment. It's the year 2014; this all just blows my mind. When will it stop? I am fighting this battle not just for us, but for future generations. I want a safe world for my grandchildren and their friends to grow up and live and love in peace and fearlessness."

Eileen and her partner are supporting a petition on asking Pennsylvania's municipal employers to maintain domestic partner benefits until statewide protections are in place.

Her partner is a member of SEIU Social Services Local 668. President Kathy Jellison responded to news of the municipal benefits change:

"Legally, it is my understanding that with the marriage equality law [sic] passing, domestic partners can now marry and thus, many employers are giving notice that they will end domestic partner benefits."

It is unclear how or if the SEIU will be responding to the planned changes. Halloran sums up what could happen if there is not more resistance to the decision:

"I feel very strongly that now that Allegheny County has set this mandate into action, the momentum will pick up. Now that the county is issuing this deadline to be married or lose your benefits, it will roll over to city of Pittsburgh employees. I believe once that happens most other employers that offer domestic partner benefits will do the same until it is a unified decision across the state."

City of Pittsburgh officials have been mum on plans to modify domestic partner benefits, which have been available to city employees since 1995. Philadephia has offered the benefits since 1998 and has yet to publicly comment on their plans. According to Philly Gay News, city leaders began meeting early in June to discuss the transition and noted that changes to policy would require action by the city council.

Allegheny County began offering domestic partner benefits in 2012, several years after passing a countywide non-discrimination ordinance in 2010.

In 2013, Philadelphia received a score of 100 on the Municipal Equality Index, an HRC tool used to assess the ways a local government supports LGBTQ residents. Pittsburgh scored 72 out of 100 points. Allegheny County was not ranked on the index.

Click here to read more of the interview with Eileen and learn why this will have a negative impact on her family. You can also sign the petition asking Allegheny County to tie the end of domestic partnership benefits to the extension of non-discrimination protections to the entire state.

UPDATE: Wednesday morning, Allegheny County announced a new deadline. Existing domestic partners have until June 30, 2015 to marry in order to maintain their benefits. No new unmarried couples will be added to the county benefit plan.

The county still maintains that this is tied to marriage equality, with no consideration for the lack of non-discrimination protections in every neighboring county. Halloran acknowledges this as a "partial victory," adding that employees of other municipalities deserve official updates in hopes of avoiding any further "shotgun wedding" approaches to the larger issue.

The city of Pittsburgh is still reviewing the policy.

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