Federal Employee Benefits and Domestic Partners

The appointments of two senior officials at the Office of Personnel Management who are openly gay highlights the potential for change in federal employee benefits for partners of gay federal employees. Here is a quick summary and a survey for readers to express their views on this topic.

Periodically, events come together to create a significant change in society. One such event may be occurring in the federal government today.

FedSmith routinely scans hundreds of news articles for information pertaining to federal employees or the inner workings of the federal government. Recently, articles have been popping up in publications with a fan base that normally does not show up on our radar.

Specifically, numerous articles have been showing up regarding the Office of Personnel Management in what might be referred to as “alternative” publications. Whether that is an accurate description or not, most of these articles are in publications catering to America’s gay population. At least some in this community are visibly pleased that two senior administration appointees at OPM are openly gay. For example, this recent article highlighted the issue in this way: “The Obama administration has appointed lesbian attorney Elaine Kaplan as general counsel for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, where she will serve under the office’s gay director, John Berry.”

Normally, it is my view that a person’s personal life on some topics is not worthy of discussion and that the people who are the subject of the discussion are entitled to a personal life away from work.

In this case, the placement of two senior appointees who are openly gay at the Office of Personnel Management is appropriate because of a confluence of events likely to have an impact on the benefits for the federal workforce.

We have occasionally linked to articles about John Berry’s nomination on our site, despite the occasional criticism from readers, because of reader interest and the potential importance to the federal workforce. While we understand the criticism, our primary goal is to highlight topics that impact the federal workforce and not to censor news items that impact the federal community or may be offensive to some readers. Admittedly, some of the publications are outside mainstream media which often tends to ignore some topics–probably because they do not want the criticism of their readers that they can be certain will follow publication.

In this case, the issue is often referred to as “domestic partner benefits.”

With a new administration and a new Congress that is decidely more liberal, Congress is likely to address controversial issues on gay rights and same-sex marriage this year. Gay-rights advocates apparently think the current political environment presents the best opportunity they have ever had to advance their agenda.

At least four bills are set to put gay rights at center stage, including a measure to eliminate part of a 1996 law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act was introduced last year by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and in the House by Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). Rep. Baldwin co-chairs the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Equality Caucus.

Here is what this act would do:

If it becomes law, the Act would apply to same- or opposite-sex couples who:

  • Include a federal government employee, excluding members of the armed forces, and his/her domestic partner;
  • Live together in a committed, intimate relationship; and
  • Are responsible for each others welfare and financial obligations.

To receive benefits, a federal employee would submit an affidavit of eligibility for benefits with the Office of Personnel Management. The affidavit would certify that the employee and domestic partner meet the eligibility criteria of the Act. These are some of the benefits the bill would provide to domestic partners of government employees:

  • Participation in Civil Service Retirement program, if applicable, similar to spouses of government employees;
  • Participation in Federal Employees’ Retirement program, if applicable, similar to spouses;
  • Life insurance, similar to spouses;
  • Health insurance, similar to spouses; and
  • Compensation for work injuries, similar to spouses.

With the appointment of John Berry and Elaine Kaplan to senior positions at OPM, the Obama administration’s support of a United Nations statement calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the interest among some in Congress for changing American society by expanding employment benefits to same sex couples, there is a much greater likelihood of these changes occurring in the near future.

When we have run articles related to this in the past, reader comments have ranged from fully supportive of the change to intense opposition. In both instances, the opinions were deeply held and reflected a significant differnece in values. Some readers also raised issues of a different nature contending that if health and retirement benefits were opened up to domestic partners, the same benefits should be afforded to adult children or multiple spouses.

Whether these changes are desirable or not, the issue is clearly on the table.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47