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Prop. 107 threatens workgroup diversity, opponents claim

By: Jonathan J. Cooper

Oct. 21, 2006

As Kirk Erickson’s father was suffering from lung cancer five years ago, it was a tough time for the family.

So it was a big help when Erickson’s fiancée, Kristin, was able to take time away from work to help out her soon-to-be in-laws and still get benefits.

Erickson and his wife weren’t yet married, but their employer, the city of Tempe, gave them marriage benefits anyway.

Tempe is one of a handful of Arizona cities to offer benefits to unmarried domestic partners, both gay and straight. But an initiative on the November ballot threatens those benefits, and some city employees worry about losing a competitive advantage in the job market.

“I think it allows for a more diverse workgroup,” said Erickson, a Tempe code inspector. “You’re allowing the same benefits to be available to employees who choose not to be married, and I think allowing that is treating employees fairly, on an equal plain, regardless of their lifestyle choice.

Proposition 107, known as Protect Marriage Arizona, amends the Arizona Constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.  It also prevents state and local governments from recognizing relationships similar to marriage, such as the domestic partnerships that Tempe recognizes.

Now married, Erickson and his wife no longer use Tempe’s domestic partner benefits.

Thirty-seven Tempe employees, about 2.5 percent, currently use the benefits, said Julie Hietter, employee benefits administrator.

The number of employees using the benefit has hovered around that level since the policy was initially adopted seven years ago, she said.

“It’s one of many benefits we would promote in our recruitment of new employees,” she said. “Certainly not the only one. But we do feel that it makes for a well-rounded benefits package for us.”

Domestic partner benefits are exactly equivalent to spousal benefits, Hietter said. The city covers health, dental and vision insurance.

The city’s cost for providing the benefits could not be easily calculated because the city lumps spousal, domestic partner and other benefits together when it reports statistics, Hietter said.

The city defines a domestic partner as an adult who has shared the employee’s permanent residence for at least six months and is financially interdependent, demonstrated by joint home ownership or other joint financial ventures, according to city documents.

City planner Eric Hansen said the initiative would put the city at a disadvantage when competing with the private sector for employees, because the initiative does not affect benefits offered by private firms.

“If the public sector is going to compete with the private sector for creative, talented employees, the public sector needs to provide benefits equivalent to the private sector,” he said.

Proposition 107 is not about eliminating domestic partner benefits, but instead “stops activists from using the courts to redefine marriage,” said Cathi Herrod, a spokeswoman Protect Marriage Arizona.

Although Arizona law already bans gay marriage—which the state Court of Appeals upheld in 2004—Herrod said the ban isn’t secure.

"It only takes one more lawsuit to overturn our marriage law," she said.

Proposition 107 would require voters to overturn the ban.

While she acknowledged that Proposition 107 would eliminate domestic partner benefits, she said such benefits are inherently unfair.

"Frankly, the city is discriminating against employees when they only offer domestic-partner benefits," Herrod said.

Unmarried employees with an adult dependent, such as a handicapped adult son or daughter, do not get domestic partner benefits, she added.

“If you add benefits on an equal basis it would allow cities to recruit employees with a kid with Down syndrome,” she said.

The city of Chandler does not offer domestic partner benefits, a spokesman said.


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