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Friday, August 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:51 AM

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Job benefits for all couples?

Seattle Times staff reporter

One of the first complaints under the state's new gay-rights law comes with a surprising twist: A former Honeywell employee is challenging employers' ability to provide domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples but not unmarried straight partners.

In her claim, Sandi Scott-Moore, who worked in Honeywell's Redmond office, said the company violated the new law by denying health-insurance coverage for her male, live-in partner in July, although it provides such coverage for the partners of gay workers.

Scott-Moore's complaint — one of the first claims filed with the state Human Rights Commission (HRC) under the new law — could have broad implications for local governments and businesses. Washington has more than 600 employers offering some kind of domestic-partner benefit and 5 percent of the state's households are couples living together outside marriage.

"It's the law of unintended consequences," said Joe Marra, a Seattle employment attorney who is not involved with the case. "A lot of people will be watching this."

"And my prediction is if HRC doesn't take action and drops the case, it will end up in court. I don't think it's that hard a call: The law says you can't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."

The new law, which took effect in June, protects people based on their sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual. It does not directly address employment benefits.

Scott-Moore is no longer employed at Honeywell and could not be reached for comment.

Honeywell spokesman Robert Ferris said the company does provide benefits to same-sex domestic partners but declined to say whether those same benefits are denied to opposite-sex couples. A prominent gay-rights organization lists Honeywell among companies that provide benefits to married and same-sex couples but not unmarried heterosexual couples.

In the Puget Sound region, Boeing, Microsoft and The Seattle Times, among others, offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex and married opposite-sex couples only, while Starbucks provides coverage for both unmarried straight and gay couples.

Employers who exclude opposite-sex partners from their benefit plans usually justify their action by pointing out that straight couples, unlike gays, have the option of marriage.

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Scott-Moore's complaint is one of four the commission is investigating under the new gay-rights law, said Marc Brenman, director of the commission. Others are expected.

Because the law is new, there is no precedent or fixed policy about how far it extends.

"You research and make it up as you go," Brenman said. "It is pretty clear the Legislature intended broad coverage under this statute."

Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who sponsored the legislation, said he sees domestic-partner benefits and the statute's civil-rights protection as separate issues. However, he said a legislative staff attorney has told him that because they fall under employment benefits, domestic-partner benefits might be subject to the law.

"What we have here are two different bodies of law: one that deals generally with employment law and the other that deals with spousal benefits," Murray said. "What we need to ask is at what point are these benefits the result of one's status as an employee or their status as partners in a relationship."

In recent years, the number of employers — both public and private — that offer domestic-partner benefits has grown. The state of Washington, the city of Seattle and King County are among several government employers that offer domestic-partner benefits to their employees.

Statewide, 610 employers have policies that extend domestic-partner benefits to employees, according to the Human Rights Campaign. It's unclear what percentage of them deny these to opposite-sex couples.

Nationwide, nearly 9,000 private companies — including more than 50 percent of all Fortune 500 companies — extend domestic-partner benefits, said Brad Luna, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay- and lesbian-rights organization.

He said a recent Hewitt Associates study found that among the companies that offer such benefits, 58 percent extended them to both gay and straight employees.

That's in part because demand is growing.

Census estimates show that nearly 36,000 heterosexual couples in Washington lived together without being married, while 17,000 gay and lesbian couples shared a home.

Marra, the Seattle lawyer, said he's been telling clients when they ask that under the state's sexual-orientation law, if they're going to give benefits to employees in a same-sex relationship they have to be sure they're giving them to all.

"It's not surprising at all that we're facing this issue. When you create a protected class, it cuts both ways," he said.

A finding that Honeywell violated the law could set a precedent that HRC could follow in other complaints, said Kim Meyers, another Seattle employment attorney.

"Most Washington employers fall into the same category [as Honeywell], so that would be pretty significant. It could motivate other employees to bring similar claims and have an impact on whether companies feel pressured to provide this benefit or risk being challenged.

"That's where this is heading."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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