Allegheny County in southwestern Pennsylvania has announced plans to eliminate domestic partner benefits for employees, effective July 31, 2014. Same-sex couples who receive benefits have until that date to legally marry or lose their benefits.
Pennsylvania is the only marriage equality state that does not have statewide non-discrimination protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Legislation to redress this (HB 300 and SB 300) is stalled in the General Assembly with little prospect for even a committee hearing.
Polling data from Equality Pennsylvania shows that the southwestern part of the state has the lowest levels of approval for this legislation. Outside of Allegheny County, which is also home to Pittsburgh, there are no regional municipal ordinances protecting the LGBTQ community in employment, housing or public accommodations.
The practical implications of Allegheny County's decision could cause real harm to employees.
If an employee's partner works outside of Allegheny County, they could be fired simply for getting married. If they are not out to their family or if it is not safe for them to be out, they face a terrible choice. If they do not have the financial means to prepare estate documents (wills, powers of attorney, etc.), as has been recommended by almost every lawyer of repute, they put themselves in legal and financial jeopardy.
If they have children, is 30 days a reasonable amount of time to attend to all of the planning necessary to protect their interests? If they want to have a nice wedding like every other couple might consider, they are out of luck - could you book a venue, find a caterer and florist in 30 days in the middle of summer? If they simply need time to make one of the most important decisions of their life with all of these other factors to consider, is 30 days reasonable?
I believe Allegheny County has made a decision in haste that same-sex couples may come to regret in the long run. We do not have a level playing field with straight unmarried couples. We have only had a month to absorb this decision, a month filled with all sorts of drama and trauma that I would be happy to explain to county officials.
What I am asking is that the municipal employers across the Commonwealth make a pledge to continue to offer domestic partner benefits until statewide non-discrimination protections are in place. This is a concrete, reasonable deadline that turns our attention away from worrying about health insurance to fighting for something that is good for everyone in Pennsylvania.
This would give everyone breathing room to make solid decisions in the best interests of our families, send a positive message to employees about their worth and value, and put the energy on the real foe to equality: those who are holding HB300 and SB300 hostage.
So I have launched a petition via Moveon.Org and I ask you to lend your name.
We ask these leaders to support their employees and acknowledge that the freedom to marry is not quite complete. Forcing us to marry - especially with only 30 days' notice - is unfair, unreasonable, and untenable for a progressive, inclusive, and respectful workplace.
We hope the plaintiffs in the Whitewood case will stand with us and not ask us to sacrifice our benefits for their marriages. We hope Equality Pennsylvania will show leadership by acting to protect the existing domestic partner benefits of municipal employees while pushing for statewide non-discrimination. We hope our transgender and queer siblings, neighbors, and friends will stand with us as we show that inequality is not simply fixed by marriage equality.
Stand behind HB 300/SB 300 and stand behind the hundreds of hard-working employees who have help to build our region with their talent, time, and skills. Don't punish us because the Commonwealth hasn't done the work of creating a level playing field.
Don't force us to get married. That's not why these families went to court and it is not what marriage equality is supposed to create.