Nissan extends domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian employees

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For more than 23 years Michelle Renee has worked at the Nissan manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tenn., and she never thought she’d see the day that gay and lesbian employees would be offered domestic partner health benefits.

That day has come. 

On Thursday, Oct. 19, Nissan quietly let their employees know that a change in the benefits package included domestic partner coverage. Actually there was no announcement at all, the change was simply noted in the benefit package notice that employees received as part of open enrollment.

News quickly spread after Murfreesboro’s "Daily News Journal" announced the change in a story, followed by WTVF NewsChannel5 and The Tennessean.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” said Renee. “I’ve asked about the company adding that benefit before at employee meetings but never got much of a response.

The change in policy affects more than 8,900 workers in Middle Tennessee at manufacturing plants in Smyrna and Dechard, as well as corporate employees. The company, which employees more than 16,000 across the U.S., decided to extend the coverage it once offered employees at the North America headquarters in California.

Recently those headquarters moved to the Middle Tennessee.

“It simply consolidates benefit plans for all of employees so we can offer one standard package,” said Julie Lawless, a spokesperson for the Smyrna Nissan factory.

Lawless said that Nissan employees who worked with the corporate headquarters in California were offered coverage for domestic partners. The company simply decided to extend that benefit to all manufacturing employees as well.

For Renee and her partner Wendy, the news had a deeper impact than just another option on health insurance.

“I was surprised at how the news affected me,” Renee said. “In a sense it legitimizes our relationship that my employer would recognize my partner by providing benefits for her.

We have been together for nine years. We own a home together. We have bank accounts together. We have a major life commitment much like any other couple.”

At press time Renee said she and Wendy had not had enough time to study what the new options were and if they would take advantage of them. 

“We’ll certainly try to,” she said. “We have excellent benefits at Nissan and superior to Wendy’s insurance. I’m very excited that they would make this available.”

Lawless said for couples to be eligible for the new benefit they must go through an affidavit process and have it notarized.

Reaction at the plant has been positive and negative Lawless said.

“Well, we’ve had a mixed reaction,” she said. “But with any new change we see positive and negative.”

Renee, who works in product quality assurance (PQA) and worked on the manufacturing line for the first seven years at Nissan, said she was disappointed in some of her fellow workers who weren’t supportive of the change in benefits.

“I would have thought that other employees would be happy that I got the benefits they have for their spouses,” she said. “I don’t know why they can’t have compassion. But for some the attitude has been that we don’t deserve it.”

She said the lack of domestic partner benefits hit home with her last year when Wendy’s brother passed away. She was forced to ask to use paid time off (PTO ) instead of being granted an automatic three day bereavement time that other employees are granted when a spouse’s close family member passes.

It’s a burden that Renee says gay people have to carry that straight people do not.

"We are given bereavement because people need time off to take care of different things when someone dies," she said. "Our needs as gay people are no different than the needs of straight people. I am hurt that many of the people I work with don’t seem to understand that concept, even after knowing and working with me all these years."

Workers at Nissan will see a nine percent increase in premiums, but that wasn’t due to the addition of the domestic partner benefit, Lawless said.

Nissan joins a host of other large employers in Middle Tennessee offering domestic partner benefits. Some of those include Vanderbilt University and Medical Center, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Dell Computers, Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, and Ford Motor Company.

Employees who take part in domestic partner benefit programs must pay taxes on those benefits, something heterosexual couples are exempt from.

The Internal Revenue Service has ruled that domestic partners are not spouses for tax purposes. Employers are obligated to report and withhold taxes on the fair market value of the domestic partner coverage. That value is typically the amount the employer contributes to a health plan to cover the domestic partner, over and above the amount contributed for single and/or dependent coverage.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s release of the “The State of the Workplace 2005-2006” report shows that, for the first time, a majority of Fortune 500 companies, 253 (51 percent), offer domestic partner health insurance benefits. 

In addition, 430 (86 percent) of the organizations include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, and 81 include gender identity and/or expression, marking a tenfold increase from 2001. The report also notes key state and local victories, such as seven states prohibiting discrimination in the private sector based on both sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and 10 more on sexual orientation alone.