Sandra Haggard, a 71-year-old professor, has been in a committed relationship with her partner, Lynne Lamstein, for more than two decades. They never had plans to marry — nor do they now — even though same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right.
But ever since same-sex marriage became legalized two years ago in Maine, where the couple lives part of the year, Ms. Haggard said she has had a niggling worry that her employer, the University of Maine, might eliminate domestic partner health coverage for Ms. Lamstein, 66, a freelance writer. Ms. Lamstein uses Ms. Haggard’s plan because Medicare does not cover a medication that she needs.
“We don’t want marriage for us, though this has been a wonderful and historic day for equality,” said Ms. Haggard, who teaches online from her home in Lake Worth, Fla. “I have been concerned that we and other people, heterosexual couples included, might be at risk of losing their benefits. I don’t believe economic benefits should go exclusively to married people.”
Ms. Haggard’s concern is not unfounded, as a national right to marry calls into question the fate of domestic partner benefits. Though it is unclear what most employers will decide, some companies are likely to deliver what feels like an ultimatum, at least to some: Marry within a certain time frame, or lose your partner’s health care coverage.
Some large employers — including Verizon, Delta Air Lines, IBM and Corning — already have. They rescinded domestic partner benefits to employees living in states where same-sex marriage was legalized and replaced it with spousal coverage. Last July, Verizon gave its employees until the end of the year to decide whether to marry. IBM gives employees a one-year grace period, though a spokeswoman said the time frame was under review; Delta said it provided a grace period as well, about two years. And some states have sought rollbacks as well.
Many employers extended the benefits only to partners of gay employees because they did not have the option to legally wed. Plenty of other organizations, however, extended domestic partner coverage to opposite-sex couples as well — and those companies are expected to maintain the benefits more so than those that offered them only to same-sex couples.
“With no legal barriers to same-sex marriage, it is likely some employers will eliminate their benefits for unmarried same-sex partners,” Todd Solomon, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery who has written a book on domestic partner benefits, said.
The administrative duties for domestic partners for same-sex and opposite-sex couples are complex, as workers may be taxed on the value of those benefits, something employers need to compute and withhold from paychecks.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners, and 62 percent of those companies also extend the benefits to workers with opposite-sex partners.
More broadly, about 35 percent of all private sector workers had access to domestic partner benefits for same-sex partners in 2014, according to a National Compensation Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And 30 percent of workers had access to benefits for opposite-sex partners.
Employers have to draw a line on whom to cover, but as ideas change of what a family is, it may become more difficult to delineate exactly where those lines should be. Workplace researchers said that by taking away benefits, companies may inadvertently make statements about their values.
“One thing that keeps coming up in our research is that the modern family is changing,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute. “As families continue to evolve, organizations are better served by supporting benefits options that can easily encompass any talented employee’s family arrangements, rather than actively limiting support for uncommon family options.”
Andrew Parks and Ashlea Halpern, both 33, have been a committed but unmarried couple for more than 13 years and have no intention of walking down the aisle. Mr. Parks said his parents already refer to Ashlea as their daughter-in-law. “They don’t need a piece of paper to prove it,” Mr. Parks said in an email, “and neither do we.”
But some human resources departments have required it. Mr. Parks, a freelance writer, has been able to receive health coverage through some but not all of Ms. Halpern’s employers, which the couple said they find discriminatory.
“No American should be denied benefits by their employer or otherwise penalized for choosing to opt out of a religiously and societally mandated but historically problematic institution,” said Mr. Parks, who is in Vietnam and seven months into a yearlong trip around Asia with Ms. Halpern. “Who is the I.R.S. or an I.C.U. nurse or an H.R. department to say that one couple, regardless of sexual preference, is more committed than another, simply because they are married?”
Dr. Matos said there was initially a fear among employers that workers with opposite-sex partners, if offered the option, would “cash in” by using the benefits, even if they were not in meaningful relationships.
But the rush to sign up never materialized, he said, and the added overall costs have been insignificant.
According to J.D. Piro, national practice leader in the law group at Aon Hewitt, the human resources and consulting firm, domestic partner benefits added roughly 1 percent to the total cost of an employer’s health care plan.
“These are not going to be snap decisions,” said Mr. Piro. “Each employer will have to look at them carefully and do a thoughtful analysis, keeping in mind what the point of employee benefits is — to attract and retain talent.”
Advocates from groups including the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal are encouraging employers to keep domestic partner benefits for everyone. Marriage equality may now be a given, but there are still about two dozen states without antidiscrimination laws protecting individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. So gay couples who marry to get health coverage might be at risk in other aspects of their lives, like securing housing.
“If an L.G.B.T. employee is, in effect, ‘outed’ by being required to obtain a public marriage license in a state that doesn’t provide explicit nondiscrimination protections, it could place that employee and their family at risk of being denied credit, housing and public accommodation,” Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.
Employers are not legally obligated to provide spousal health benefits at all, but if they do offer them, they will now be required to do so for all spouses if the plan is governed by state insurance law, according to Mr. Solomon, who wrote a book on domestic partner benefits. But, many large employers have “self-insured” plans, governed by federal law, and they have more latitude to create rules on coverage. While there is no requirement to provide health coverage to same-sex spouses under a self-insured plan, Mr. Solomon said, plans that deny such coverage could be subject to discrimination claims and are less likely to exclude same-sex spouses.
Even though companies are getting stingier when it comes to providing spousal coverage, benefits professionals do not expect to see companies dropping domestic partner benefits in droves, particularly if they already offer the perk to opposite-sex couples.
“I would be kind of surprised if we see big trends in that area,” added Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Even in light of this ruling, I don’t think they want to shrink that talent pool.”