Domestic partner benefits get another boost

New contract extends sick-leave provisions to Forest Service employees and their domestic partners.

Gay and lesbian employees of the Agriculture Department's Forest Service living in domestic partnerships now are eligible for the same sick-leave benefits long available to heterosexual couples.

Under an agreement the National Federation of Federal Employees negotiated, Forest Service workers living with domestic partners will receive up to 12 weeks of annual leave or leave without pay to care for family members who have serious health conditions. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act grants federal workers leave to address family events and challenges, such as birth of a child or spousal illness, and the new collective bargaining agreement extends those benefits to Forest Service employees with domestic partners. The new provisions took effect Oct. 25.

"The benefit is leave entitlement, FMLA is the mechanism," said Mark Davis, chairman of NFFE's Forest Service Legislative Council. "But we can also use negotiation as mechanism to put the same entitlement in place. The intent was to basically say, hey, we don't have this under FMLA, but those left out are now covered."

The new contract is the latest step in a widening of domestic partner benefits. President Obama in 2009 directed the Office of Personnel Management to extend long-term care benefits and family and parental leave to same-sex partners of government workers. No statutory changes were made, however. OPM in June issued a final rule stating domestic partners qualify as family members for purposes of sick leave, and Director John Berry in September directed agency heads to grant 24 hours of leave without pay annually to federal employees to handle routine education and medical needs of their families, including any same-sex domestic partners.

Davis noted the Forest Service agreement is important because it defines a family member as anyone with a blood relationship or close affinity to the employee, including domestic partners, children's spouses and grandparents.

"All families aren't Ozzie and Harriet," Davis said. "So if you were raised by an aunt or grandmother, why in the world would we not give leave that you have earned so you can go care for a sick family member that was that parent?"

The contract also allows covered employees up to 12 weeks of annual or unpaid leave to care for newborn or adopted children.

"This is a big step forward for the federal workforce," said NFFE National President William Dougan. "Now, Forest Service employees living in domestic partnerships will have the right to care for their loved ones in times of need. This is an example that we hope other agencies will follow."