By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
DETROIT – On Nov. 4, two local experts on domestic partner benefits addressed the afternoon session of “Gender and Corporate Citizenship,” a forum sponsored by Wayne State University’s Center for the Study of Citizenship. John Graham, the former Director of Employee Benefits and Operations for Comerica, and Seth Lloyd, who is currently representing Ann Arbor public schools in an anti-benefits lawsuit filed by the anti-gay Thomas More Law Center, were the speakers.
Graham, who authored Comerica’s policy offering domestic partner benefits, said that Detroit is lagging behind the rest of the country.
“Folks on the coast would find us very backward, very out of touch,” with regard to domestic partner policies, Graham said, and added that the changes that have come to Michigan were brought here by national and multi-national corporations.
Graham explained that California, which mandates that employers provide the benefits, has the fifth largest GDP in the world. Any company that wants to expand into California has to comply with that state’s employment law, including the domestic partnership law.
As for the controversy surrounding providing the benefits, Graham said that “there hasn’t been a discussion about this on the West Coast for seven or eight years, but we’re still slugging it out,” here in the Midwest.
Graham also noted that domestic partner benefits aren’t necessarily a gay issue, saying that two-thirds of the employees who signed up for Comerica’s benefits were unmarried, partnered heterosexuals.
Graham’s presentation traced the history that has led to the current movement for domestic partner benefits. The expansion of women’s employment rights, the broadening and strenghtening of pension protections, and the union movement were all credited by Graham as factors in the current drive to protect domestic partners and children. Graham even cited the Family Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to give workers time off to care for parents or children. “All of a sudden, ‘family’ is not just a spouse,” he said.
Ultimately, though, Graham said that business forces will drive the growth of companies offering the benefits.
In addition to being able to do business in states that mandate the benefits, offering them helps companies market to groups of people who feel it’s important for domestic partners to be treated equally. In addition, the available U.S. workforce, Graham said, will continue to decline until about 2012, increasing competition for skilled employees, including unmarried employees with domestic partners.
Graham said that Michigan could suffer if its businesses fail to embrace the move to provide domestic partner benefits.
“The large national and multi-national employers have already moved, and they’ll drag the rest of the economy with them,” Graham told BTL after his presentation. “If they [Michigan’s businesses] don’t follow, yes, Michigan will suffer, because the labor pool is shrinking. [If you] systematically ignore segments of the population as not being employable at your corporation you will ultimately fail. You won’t get the best and the brightest. And in the global economy you can’t do that anymore.”
Seth Lloyd, a partner in the law firm of Dykema Gossett, spoke next about the impact of the anti-gay family Proposal 2 on the domestic partner benefits offered by the state’s public employers. Lloyd traced the history of the Thomas More suit and Attorney General Mike Cox’s efforts to stop public employers from offering the benefits.
Lloyd also detailed Cox’s arguments in the Attorney General’s appeal of Judge Joyce Draganchuk’s decision that Proposal 2 does not forbid public employers in Michigan from providing the benefits. Among Cox’s arguments, according to Lloyd, is that the Proposal 2 preamble, “To secure for society the benefits of marriage,” pertains to health insurance and other employment benefits. Lloyd said that another of Cox’s arguments says that the word “recognize” in the proposal’s language forbids the state from acknowledging even the existence of another type of relationship. In other words, under Proposal 2, the State of Michigan would be forbidden from including State Representative Chris Kolb’s partner on the invitation to state events, because to do so would be to “recognize” the existence of the representative’s relationship.
In addition, Lloyd covered Cox’s arguments about the proposal’s other clauses, as well as the Attorney General’s position that, despite quotes and even campaign literature by Proposal 2’s supporters to the contrary, Michigan’s voters actually understood that the proposal would take away benefits from unmarried partners.
Lloyd refused to predict the outcome of the ACLU case, saying that it is now before “The John Engler Memorial Court of Appeals,” and citing the conservative nature of the current Michigan Supreme Court. He did say that the proposal might ultimately be challenged successfully under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, “but that case has not yet been decided.”
After his talk, Lloyd told BTL that Proposal 2 could potentially make it harder for public employers to find and hire good people.
“If the Supreme Court ultimately decides that the meaning of this constitutional amendment is that such benefits are not permitted, I think it may … contribute to the difficulty public employers have in attracting the best and the brightest, if they happen to be people who would use those benefits. So I think it’s a very unfortunate thing for Michigan public employers if that happens.”