Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won a court victory last week giving
him permission to ignore a local ordinance. The law in
question would have prevented the city from doing business with companies
that did not offer domestic partner benefits to their employees.
ruling, New York state's top court said the mayor did not have to
enforce the Equal Benefits Ordinance, enacted by the city
council over his veto, because the measure violated a state
statute requiring public contacts to be awarded to the lowest
bidder. The court concluded that
a municipality may not withhold a contract simply because the lowest
bidder does not offer equal benefits to domestic partners of its
provision of equal benefits for domestic partners and spouses
may be a desirable end, but it is not one that New York City is
free to pursue by departing from the requirements of the
competitive bidding statute," the court declared.
A majority of judges said they
had no doubt that the Equal Benefits Law is a good faith effort
to make contractors treat the domestic partners of employees in
a way that the city council considers fair. "But the
competitive bidding statute reflects a judgment by the State
Legislature that, to avoid among other things the risk of
favoritism, municipalities must give business to the lowest
responsible bidder, whether the bidder's benefit plans meet the
municipality's idea of fairness or not," the majority opinion
As a result of this ruling, until
state law is amended no city in the Empire State will be allowed
to require private businesses to offer
domestic partner benefits to their employees.
Despite this setback, many cities in other states have been adopting
equal benefits ordinances of the kind now outlawed in New York.
San Francisco started the equal
benefits bandwagon rolling in 1997. That law was challenged
in various federal lawsuits but, with some judicial trimming,
the basic ordinance was upheld.
This prompted hundreds of
companies doing business with the city to adopt domestic partner
benefits programs in the ensuing years. Many of these
multi-state companies adopted nationwide benefits reforms, so
the San Francisco law has had a wide rippling effect.
The equal benefits model enacted
in San Francisco has been copied by other municipalities in
California, including Los
Angeles, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Mateo County. The State of California
also jumped on the bandwagon and beginning in January 2007 will requires state contractors to offer domestic
The equal benefits movement has
not been limited to California. Several municipalities in
Washington state also have passed such laws, including Olympia,
Seattle, Tumwater, and King County.
Although Minneapolis is the only
city in the Midwest with such a law on the books, a spattering
of municipalities on the East Coast have endorsed the equal
A few years ago, Portland, Maine
adopted an equal benefits ordinance which was challenged by
Catholic Charities. Although a federal court invalidated a
portion of the law affecting health and pension benefits,
it allowed the city to enforce portions dealing with other
benefits, such as employee assistance programs, bereavement
leave, and leaves of absence.
Broward County, Florida passed a
milder equal benefits law, which gives preference points to
businesses seeking city contracts if those businesses have
adopted domestic partner benefits for their own employees.
Miami Beach passed a full-fledged equal benefits ordinance a few
of state and local laws requiring equal benefits for domestic
partners has undoubtedly had an affect on private businesses.
In 1997, when San Francisco adopted the first such law in the
nation, only a token number of private employers offered domestic
partner benefits. Today, more than 8,000
employers have such programs.
It's amazing to see how a few
progressive city councils have been able to change the direction
of private sector employment benefits plans. Despite
opposition from conservative religious and political forces,
benefits that were once reserved for spouses are now widely
available to a broader range of family relationships.
It would appear the benefits
genie is out of the bottle. As a result, it won't be long
until a majority of companies throughout the nation will use an expanded definition of "family" in
structuring employee benefits programs.
Unmarried America 2006
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and