Monday, July 23, 2007

Corzine Enters Dispute with UPS Over Who Is a Legal Spouse

Corzine Enters Dispute With United Parcel Service Over Who Is a Legal Spouse
NEWARK, July 20 — Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey sent a letter on Friday urging United Parcel Service to provide the same benefits for civil union partners as it does for married couples, intervening for the first time in the question of whether companies are appropriately following the state’s mandate for equal treatment of same-sex couples.

The letter stemmed from complaints made by a truck driver for the company who has been unable to get health benefits for her partner after they became one of the first New Jersey couples to obtain a civil union. In February, the state became the third in the nation to authorize civil unions.

“The provision of employee benefits to civil union partners on the same terms as spouses would be more than a symbolic gesture of your company’s commitment to eliminating discrimination,” the governor wrote. “Spousal benefits are a key element of the financial and physical well-being of working couples and their children.”

Company officials said on Friday that they had not received Mr. Corzine’s letter, and that the question of providing benefits to the driver, Nickie Brazier, is tied up in the legal complexities of a continuing contract negotiation with her union.

But beyond the specific situation at the company, the governor’s letter hinted at the possibility of a broader battle that advocates for same-sex couples have warned about since a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling last fall saying that all couples must be treated equally, but leaving to the Legislature whether to achieve that through same-sex marriage or civil unions. Without marriage, the advocates say, many companies — either willfully, or because of the resulting legal confusion over how to define “spouse” — will not treat same-sex couples equally.

Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern University and author of the book “Same Sex, Different States: When Same-Sex Marriages Cross State Lines,” cited two pressing issues as states wrestle with the evolving definitions of couples: “tangible benefits” and “symbolic approval.”

“If you read the New Jersey statute, it gives couples all the same rights and responsibilities and benefits” as heterosexual couples, Mr. Koppelman said. The objection that gay couples have is that civil unions are “different, and by implication, inferior to heterosexual unions.”

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a statewide gay-rights organization, said that to date, 193 of the 1,359 couples who have registered for civil unions in New Jersey have reported to him that their companies are not recognizing their unions, though none have yet filed suit to challenge the law. “Companies are offering a gazillion excuses,” Mr. Goldstein said. “The law says civil union partners should be treated as spouses,” he said. “It doesn’t say they are spouses.”

Some companies, particularly those that are self-insured — like 51 percent of New Jersey businesses — contend that federal law creates obstacles to providing equal benefits. Some cite the federal Defense of Marriage Act, while many others, including United Parcel Service, refer to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. The act, known as “Erisa,” pre-empts state laws and allows self-insured employers to choose how to define “spouse.”

“Erisa doesn’t say that companies have to discriminate,” said David S. Buckel, a senior attorney at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who is representing Ms. Brazier. “Their argument is that Erisa gives them a choice. The question is, will they make the right choice?”

A spokesman for United Parcel Service, Norman Black, said the company had a policy of extending domestic partner benefits to all of its employees, but had been advised by its lawyers that it could not give such benefits to employees represented by the Teamsters union under a contract that does not expire until next summer.

In May, the company wrote to Ms. Brazier, saying that the company could not provide her partner, Heather Aurand, with health benefits because the state of New Jersey “does not currently recognize same-sex marriages.” Ms. Brazier’s health plan, the company said, provides benefits to her “legal spouse” as defined by state law. “In summary, you cannot add Ms. Aurand as a spouse because New Jersey law does not treat civil unions the same as marriages,” the letter concluded.

Mr. Buckel, of Lambda Legal, said when he read the letter from the company, “I fell off my chair.” For advocacy organizations, there was no better evidence of the limitations of the civil union law than the company’s letter.

But in his response to United Parcel Service, Governor Corzine disagreed, arguing that New Jersey’s law in no way prevents the company from providing benefits. “New Jersey law intends that civil union partners be viewed as partners under all facets of New Jersey law and that a reference to ‘spouse’ in a legal context, including in a contract, embraces civil union partners,” he said.

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