Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Editorial on UPS

What 'brown' could do for marriage equality
Monday, July 23, 2007


THE LEGISLATURE took a politically safe step away from embracing marriage equality last fall. The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey were entitled to all the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. A majority on the court ruled it was up to the Legislature to determine whether to call those unions marriage or something else. Not surprisingly, the Legislature went for something else.

The Legislature said "no" to marriage and "yes" to civil unions. Since that law took effect on Feb. 19, 1,359 couples have been civil unionized. According to Garden State Equality, 193 civil-unionized couples have reported that their employers have refused to recognize their unions.

Lambda Legal, which argued the same-sex marriage case before the state Supreme Court, says more than 100 couples have contacted them about having difficulties with employers not recognizing their rights to spousal benefits. Lambda Legal is representing two same-sex couples who have been denied spousal benefits from United Parcel Service.

In a letter to one of the UPS employees seeking spousal benefits, UPS wrote: "... New Jersey law does not treat civil unions the same as marriages, and the (UPS benefits) Plan requires a dependent spouse to be a spouse as defined under applicable law."

Yet the state Supreme Court specifically instructed the Legislature to provide all the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples. By not calling it marriage, legislators opened a large gaping wound.

David Buckel, senior counsel with Lambda Legal said, "The blood is still flowing."

Buckel said self-insured companies like UPS are not prohibited by the Defense of Marriage Act or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act from offering equal benefits to same-sex couples. Discrimination is an option. "It's their choice," he said. UPS offers benefits to same-sex married couples in Massachusetts. They also offer them to non-union civil-unionized couples.

UPS is saying its union contract is subject to collective bargaining and that any change in benefits for union members would require negotiation. But the state Legislature defined civil unions as equal to marriage. Call them spouses or call them partners, in New Jersey it's supposed to be same thing.

It's not. As former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz said in her dissenting opinion in the same-sex marriage case: Language matters. Calling "marriage" a "civil union" codifies inequality.

Enter Governor Corzine. On Friday, he sent a letter to Michael Eskew, chairman and CEO of UPS, urging him to extend marriage equality benefits to all UPS employees. Corzine wrote: "Apart from any purely legal considerations, 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. Spousal benefits are a key element of the financial and physical well-being of working couples and their children."

Corzine is right. But as Buckel noted, "Not every couple will get a letter from the governor."

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, also applauded Corzine's letter while emphasizing that more and more New Jersey civil unionized couples are being denied spousal benefits. "It's an epidemic," Goldstein said.

There is little hope for a cure in the near future. Speaking to The Record's editorial board on Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, stated his personal support for marriage equality. But he also was adamant that no changes in the language of the state's civil union law would be forthcoming in the Legislature.

It remains a politically charged issue. Last year's closely fought U.S. Senate race may have prevented Corzine from publicly supporting marriage equality. Democrats did not want to galvanize Republican and conservatives. This year's 120 open Legislative seats have the same chilling effect on marriage equality. Next year there's a presidential election. It's always an election year. It's always going to be difficult to do the right thing, the just thing -- to call it marriage.

Buckel said, "With inequality comes inequality." That's what's happening in New Jersey.

Michael Purdue, president of Teamsters Local 177, which represents the UPS employees, said, "We would not refuse an improvement to the health care plan outside of negotiations." The only thing that is blocking civil-unionized UPS union employees from receiving spousal benefits is UPS.

If UPS can guarantee delivery in 24 hours, it could guarantee benefits to these employees in an equally short time span. It should not require the governor's intervention, Lambda Legal, or collective bargaining. "Brown" needs to go lavender.

Alfred P. Doblin is the editorial page editor of The Record. Contact him at doblin@northjersey.com

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