The march forward of LGBT rights is perhaps most visible in the push for marriage equality across the country, but across the country thousands of smaller steps are being made. One such step is the move, endorsed by 26 Metro Nashville city council members, to initiate a process which could ultimately lead to the extension of domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples working for the city government. Statewide the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) has been promoting such initiatives statewide. Knoxville's recent move to extend domestic partner benefits illustrates the diversity of processes by which such advances are made. Knoxville's city charter allowed Mayor Madeline Rogero to enact the change by executive order.
In Nashville on the other hand, the process has been and will be procedurally more complicated. According to Chris Sanders, Executive Director of TEP, the organization has "met with council members to help shape the discussion of domestic partner benefits, and to discuss the needs and concerns of the LGBT community." As early as the 2011 elections, support for extending benefits to same sex couples was an issue the organization tracked on its candidate position surveys, and the findings of these surveys helped indicate that the time was coming to raise the issue with predictably broad support.
On October 2, a memo signed by 26 City Council members, was sent to the mayor, formally requesting – as required by the city charter – that the mayor appoint a "Study and Formulating Committee specifically to consider the provision of domestic partner benefits for Metro employees and to make the appropriate recommendations to the Metropolitan Employee Benefit Board." In support of its request, the memo cited Metro's own anti-discrimination ordinance, as well as moves by other government bodies and corporations to extend such benefits.
Councilman Westerholm, one of the chief backers of the move and the memo’s first signer, expects the mayor will have a list of names for the Confirmations Committee soon, and that once confirmed the study committee will begin its work almost immediately. The recommendations of the committee will ultimately have to be approved as a city ordinance by the city council. Chris Sanders optimistic, given the level support: "We're off to a very good start."
Response from Mayor Dean's office had been predictably positive. Like the memo he received, the mayor's statement cites widespread benefits extensions among municipalities and corporations. The mayor's statement however goes further, pointing out that benefits equality is just a smart HR practice: "Offering a competitive level of benefits attracts employees and is a smart way to do business." This raises one of the tangible benefits to the city itself of extending benefits: as Councilman Westerholm put it, Nashville needs to position itself "to attract new Metro employees from a pool of talent which expects such benefits for same-sex partners." Likewise, Metro employee retention will benefit from benefits equality, and prevent "brain drain" from Metro departments.
Families of long-term Metro employees like Bob Benson (above photo) have long faced additional financial burdens not faced by their heterosexual, married colleagues. Benson and his partner Michael have been together for 12 years but Michael has to purchase a separate, more expensive individual insurance rather than joining Bob on a Metro family plan. This burden is multiplied by the fact that since the two are on separate plans, each has to meet his own out-of-pocket maximum: last year Bob met his early in the year, but Michael's medical expenses continued to impact the couples finances at full price. Additionally, while his colleagues receive bereavement days for the death of close family of their spouses, Bob had to take vacation days to stand by his partner at the funeral of his mother. Despite his love for his work in the Metro Parks Department, Bob knows "there are many other employers in Nashville that already offer same-sex benefits, and so [seeking other employment] has been a tempting thought, but I’ve held out with hope that maybe one day this would happen." Now it seems that day may be near.
Councilman Westerholm reports that a number of council members have heard stories like Bob's. While the true costs of the lack of benefits equality is hard to measure, the present push for benefits equality for Metro Nashville employees reflects an understanding that, as Westerholm put it, extending benefits to domestic partners is "the right thing to do, for Nashville to be seen as a progressive, welcoming place that supports diversity and treats its workers well."
Image Credit: TEP and Artistic W Creations