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Originally published Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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Boeing undecided about pension survivor benefits for gay spouse

In response to a question from its engineering union, Boeing said it has to study how offering survivor pension benefits to married gay workers would impact its growing pension obligations.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Boeing has indicated in a round of contract talks with its engineering union that it might not provide survivor pension benefits to married gay employees.

While the aerospace company, like several other large area employers, has long granted certain marriagelike benefits to gay workers — doing so before the state required it of them — pension benefits are not included.

And the state's gay-marriage law, which takes effect Dec. 6, won't change the partner benefits that companies like Boeing are required to offer gay employees, because the state's existing partnership law already lists those requirements.

The issue about survivor benefits for gay couples arose last week during Boeing's negotiations with the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), which covers 23,000 engineers and technical workers.

It wasn't presented as part of a formal proposal, although the union has sought to win such benefits for gay workers in the past, SPEEA spokesman Bill Dugovich said.

Company negotiators, he said, indicated Boeing had "no intention of providing such coverage," pointing out that pensions are regulated by the federal government, which does not recognize same-sex unions.

Doug Alder, spokesman for Boeing, said, "This is obviously a new law, and we'll take a closer look to see how it impacts us across the board."

Boeing and several other Washington employers such as Starbucks and Microsoft have long been lauded by gay-rights groups for voluntarily providing partner benefits to gay employees.

But pensions, as well as some health-care plans for employers large enough to self-insure, fall under a federal law known as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

ERISA is regulated by the federal government, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, trumps state law — domestic partnerships or marriage laws — in directing how certain federal-benefit laws are enforced.

But while the state lacks the authority to compel employers with federally regulated pensions, like Boeing, to extend coverage to an employee's same-sex partner, employers may extend such benefits voluntarily — as some already do. And Boeing does provide ERISA-regulated health-insurance coverage for domestic partners of its employees, Alder said.

He said the company is "studying how any change to our pension plan would impact our growing pension obligations, and we'll continue to discuss it with SPEEA."

Dugovich said Boeing is using a loophole to deny benefits to workers.

Neither Alder nor Dugovich could say late last week how many workers at Boeing could benefit from such coverage.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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