Tide may be turning in favor of domestic partner benefits
Five years ago this March, Michelle Schohn joined the Foreign Service.
Diplomacy wasn't her initial field of choice; she already had a job as an archaeologist. But there was one very significant factor influencing her decision to change careers. Schohn's partner, Mary Glantz, already was a member of the Foreign Service. And when Glantz was posted overseas, things got complicated. The State Department classifies the spouses of gay and lesbian employees as "members of household," according them different benefits than heterosexual couples who are legally married.
Members of household are not eligible to participate in special early-round applications for jobs at embassies, as heterosexual spouses can. They cannot be covered by their partners' health insurance, so they are not guaranteed coverage when they go overseas. They do not have access to diplomatic posts' medical facilities. And if posts have to be evacuated, members of household are not guaranteed evacuation pay or subsidies to cover expenses.
"I was in a career I liked very much," says Schohn, now president of the organization Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. But she was faced with the choice of either going overseas unemployed with her partner and without diplomatic protections, or quitting her job and joining the Foreign Service so she and Glantz could get equal treatment. "I didn't like either option," Schohn says.
She may be one of the few people ever to decide to join the federal government because of the way its employment policies distinguish between straight and gay couples. Often, the policies have the opposite effect. At a September 2008 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Frank A. Hartigan, a deputy regional director for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, said if he were starting out in the job market again, he would look outside government for an employer that would allow him to add his partner to his health insurance. Soon, though, Schohn, Hartigan and thousands of other federal employees might not have to make such a choice.
A combination of events -- including two court orders from California federal judges, the appointment of an Office of Personnel Management director with a long history of working to change policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees, and the inauguration of a president who has voiced support for expanding gay rights -- have created a climate favorable to enacting domestic partner benefits for federal employees.
In the May 1 issue of Government Executive, Alyssa Rosenberg explored the changing landscape.