May 24, 2011
by Adam Smeltz
For at least 10 years, the State College teachers’ union has wanted the inclusion of same-gender domestic-partner benefits in school-district employee contracts, union President Holli Jo Warner said Monday.
In fact, Warner said the union — the State College Area Education Association — has asked the State College school district for that policy addition in the last two rounds of contract talks — one about five years ago, the other a decade ago.
“Through the negotiations process, we did not achieve that goal,” Warner told StateCollege.com. ” … We are currently in the process of negotiations (again) … and I’m sure it will be talked about again.”
StateCollege.com approached Warner about the subject in light of a federal lawsuit filed against the district last week.
In the case, district employee Kerry Wiessmann and her partner, Beth G. Resko, have targeted the district policy that prevents workers’ same-gender domestic partners from qualifying for the same benefits made available for opposite-gender domestic partners.
That policy, according to their complaint, violates Wiessmann and Resko’s First and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. The women are seeking a change in the policy.
The school district is expected to respond formally in court. But in a preliminary statement released to reporters on Friday, the district administration indicated that the benefits policy in question stems from the collective-bargaining process.
“The district is precluded from making changes unilaterally for any member of the (State College Area Education Association) without discussion through” the collective-bargaining process, the statement reads.
“When and if this issue raised in this suit is brought to the bargaining table by the association, the district will consider it, just as it considers every other issue that is raised during the collective-bargaining process,” the statement goes on.
But Warner was unequivocal when reached by a reporter Monday:
Same-gender domestic-partner benefits were “definitely on the table” in past contract negotiations, she said. “The association brought it to the table as something we would like to achieve.”
Warner said the union’s objective is for same-gender domestic partners to qualify for “all the same benefits that an (opposite-gender) spouse receives.”
Just a few blocks away from the school-district offices, she noted, Penn State’s employee-benefits policy already includes that provision.
StateCollege.com approached the school-district administration Monday about Warner’s comments and is awaiting a reply.
Asked why the district had not granted the union’s request for same-gender partner benefits, Warner said she understood the district’s concern to be financial.
Expanding health coverage to include same-gender domestic partners would cost the district more money — likely to the tune of some $6,000 annually per additional person, Warner estimated.
It also would cost the district more money through paid bereavement leave, she said.
Right now, district policy allows employees one paid bereavement day for the death of a close friend, Warner said. For the death of a husband or a wife, though, the policy allows for five paid bereavement days.
Extending that benefit to cover same-gender domestic partnerships would mean more in the way of substitute-teacher expenses, Warner said.
She very roughly estimated that perhaps a dozen current district workers — and their same-gender domestic partners — would be directly affected by the policy change now sought in federal court.
Those in relationships accepted by the district as “domestic partnerships” are not “just roommates,” Warner emphasized. Rather, she said, they need to provide evidence of their committed partnerships through joint titles or other documentation.
Wiessmann and Resko share a home, financial obligations and parenting duties, their court filing shows. If they were in an opposite-gender domestic partnership, the filing says, they would qualify for the full complement of district benefits given to committed heterosexual couples.