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County joins public employers ditching domestic partner benefits

Posted On: Oct. 22, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Orange County, Florida, this week joined a growing list of public sector employers phasing out health care coverage and other benefits for domestic partners.

County commissioners in Orlando voted unanimously on Tuesday to discontinue Orange County's domestic partner benefit program effective Jan. 1, 2016, with a one-year grace period ending Dec. 31 of next year for current enrollees in the program.

Orange County, which covers roughly 900 square miles of central Florida and employs approximately 10,400 workers, began offering spousal-equivalent health care, retirement and other benefits to gay and lesbian employees' domestic partners in 2012, since same-sex marriages were not recognized under federal or Florida state law.

In an Oct. 7 memo to the board of commissioners, Orange County Human Resources Director J. Ricardo Daye said the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings in 2013 and in June of this year striking down federal and state bans on same-sex marriage “nullified” the need to offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

“The intent of the program was to ensure parity for same-sex couples who did not have the option to marry in the state of Florida,” Mr. Daye said in the memo. “The program was not available to opposite-sex couples because they have always had the right to marry.”

The county's board of commissioners also voted 7-0 to remove same-sex domestic partners from eligibility for bereavement leave, effective Dec. 31, 2016.

“By eliminating domestic partner benefits, Orange County is taking a significant step backwards,” Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of the St. Petersburg, Florida-based LGBT rights group Equality Florida Action Inc., said in a statement following the board of commissioners' vote.

“Numerous studies also show that providing the option of domestic partner benefits is good for business,” Mr. Pollitzer said. “The costs are extremely low, averaging only about one percent of total benefits costs, and providing the benefits creates a significant, measurable increase in employee morale and productivity that more than makes up the expense.”

Several other public sector employers have elected to drop domestic partners from their employee benefit programs in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared state laws banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced that federal employees will no longer be able to offer dependent health, dental and vision coverage to their same-sex domestic partners' children as of the end of the 2015 plan year.

Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University and the University System of Georgia — which comprises more than 30 public colleges across the state — all discontinued domestic partner benefits within the last few months, as have the cities of Charlotte, North Carolina and Cleveland, Ohio.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 34% of gay and lesbian employees in the public sector had access to domestic partner health benefits in 2014, and 50% of those employees' domestic partners were eligible for survivor benefits under their partner's pension plan.