A Tale of Two Americas: Addressing the Issue of Benefits Equity

Posted In: Politics, National, Opinion,   From Issue 746   By: Matt deHeus

26th April, 2012     0

There aren't many days more exciting than the first day on the job.  It's often a fresh start or a step forward or a welcome bit of economic relief.  You'll probably get up in advance of your alarm and dress to impress in a crisp new outfit, be it a brand new uniform or a smart looking skirt.  It's even better if all this effort is for a “good job.”  Just like your parents, you probably define this as full time work, which usually means you get benefits  - like sick time, vacation pay, family leave and health insurance.  
With that list, I could easy take you through a parable in which you end up thanking your local union rep for those perks.  Instead, I am going to go down a slightly different path, appropriate in this case, because that first day of work is often a lot different than you expected.  Instead of digging into your job, you are probably sentenced to a series of “getting to know you” encounters, beginning with our friends in Human Resources.
I'd like to invite you to join me as we sit in while two new employees discuss the company's health insurance plans.  I'm going to take a little literary license with the conversation, but I think you will quickly get the point. 
HR Guy:  “Well, Adam, the first thing we need to do is get you enrolled in the company Health Insurance Plan.  I've already picked up your information from your application file.  So, tell me, what kind of sex do you like?”
Adam:  “Oh, I like the kind with women.  You know, the kind that makes babies.   In fact I have five kids, though the court order on my oldest runs out when he turns 18 in June.”
HR Guy:  “Oh, that's no problem.   Once you are in the family plan, it doesn't matter how many kids are covered.  Four kids at home, though?  Your wife must be a really busy woman.”
Adam:  “Ah … I've actually never been married.  I have two that live in Texas and two of the kids live with me, because their Mom moved to New Mexico with the plumber.  The fifth one was a drunken mistake in college.  But I'm single.  Probably gonna stay that way if I'm smart.”
HR Guy:  “But everybody's straight, right?”
Adam:  “Well, I caught my son playing with a Barbie last week and I grounded him.  Heck, yeah, we are all normal in my household.”
HR Guy:  “Great.  Let's get the kids names and SS numbers listed here and we should be good to go.”
HR Guy:  “Well, Steve, the first thing we need to do is get you enrolled in the company Health Insurance Plan.  I've already picked up your information from your application file.  So, tell me, what kind of sex do you like?”
Steve:  “Well, I like the kind with guys, even though I know it means we can't conceive babies.  I've been with my partner, Jim, for 17 years.”
HR Guy:  “I don't know what to say, Steve.  We don't offer same sex benefits.   I'm sure you'll understand it's not my choice, just a rule.  Anyway, let's talk about vacation time.”
Steve:  “But wait.  What about our son?  I mean Jim's son.  We adopted him 14 years ago.  I mean Jim adopted him 14 years ago and we have raised him together.  It doesn't seem to matter to our son.  He calls us both Dad.”
HR Guy:  “Well, under our policies it sounds like Jim is the father.  Why doesn't he provide health care for his son?”
Steve:  “Jim has cancer.  He hasn't been able to work for several years.  That's why I am so glad for this job.  The increase in pay is going to make it easier to pay for his nurse.  Plus, our son really needs a new wheelchair.”
HR Guy:  “Wheelchair?”
Steve:  “Our son has severe cerebral palsy.  His mother was on crack and we were so lucky to get him out of that situation.”
HR Guy:  “That is so sad.  And we have such a good insurance plan.  Oh my goodness, I'm going to have to ask the VP if you qualify for time off if Jim dies!  It's such a shame you aren't straight.  Anyway, let's move on to vacation, you have to be to Facilities Management by 9:00.”
Preach, Sister, Preach
Liz Ullrich is getting quite a reputation and not just as one kick-ass Political Science Professor.  Anyone who watched her dismantle Gary Glenn at the recent Delta College forum on Same Sex Benefits realizes we have an emerging voice in Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights in our midst.  She is smart, sweet, sophisticated, sharp as a tack and pretty darn serious about the issue.   I'm guessing she's not old enough to remember Gloria Steinem in her prime, but I am and she has those kind of activist chops.
When I sat down with Liz to discuss the topic of same-sex benefits, much of our conversation focused on the vocabulary surrounding the issue.   Early in our conversation she made a very interesting observation from the discussions in her classes when she said, “One problem is everyone comes into this discussion with bias and baggage and many people only know one way to talk about it.  If it was wrong in their household, they do not have an understanding of how you might talk about the subject objectively.  Even discussing it is radical.”
Regular readers of this space know where I fall on Worker's Rights and on this front it was clear that Liz was immediately a kindred spirit.  In fact, it was interesting to hear that she felt that LGBT employees are simply an easy target when businesses are trying to minimize the value of the people working for them with the comment, “(Management) will say 'let's cut their pay, we won't give them any benefits.'  It's part of an overall move in that direction.  LGBT are simply easy to exclude, because they aren't currently included.”
One thing that Liz pointed out to me that is very clear is that people like Rick Snyder practice exclusion through the use of neutral language, rather than making divisive moral arguments.  “It's always 'we are strapped for cash' or 'we can't afford it.'  These are dinner table issues that everyone can understand, but they are things that have nothing to do with whether or not the practice of offering benefits to only one class of employees is right or wrong.”
As we talked, it became pretty clear that one would be hard pressed to come up with anything analogous to the current denial of most benefits the families of LGBT employees.  Imagine if we had a similar practice in which different classes of people were excluded from portions of the typical compensation package.  Like if only secretaries didn't get vacation.  Or teachers didn't get retirement plans.  Or blonde people just didn't get paid.  See how quickly this kind of exclusionary practice can get out of hand? 
If you still need convincing at this point, don't bother with me.  The next time you see that Liz Ullrich is on a slate of speakers, I really think you need to go.  But, only do it if you feel like getting a little bit smarter.
America the Inequitable
Despite the myth, America doesn't actually have a great record on equality.  Though we've patched it up a bit, we are one of the few places that actually built it into our Constitution.  Women couldn't vote.  Slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person.   It's kind of ugly stuff. 
With such a rich history of bigotry, it is pretty easy to grasp that pockets of America continue to hang onto to hate and that there are a lot of people whose lives center around whom they can degrade.   But it's kind of interesting that it's the issue of sex that divides us this time, because even with all the hate, we are kind of a “do your own thing” nation.  And, at least from what I have seen, there is nothing that is more “your own thing” than how and with whom you have sex.
In fact, as I tried to parody in the opening, it actually kind of ticks me off that I have to reveal that I am a heterosexual on the first day of a new job.  They don't know me that well and how is this any of their business?  But, I do it so my kids get insurance.  Sucks for “Steve”, though, huh?
A Little Experiment
Much like racism, you often hear bigots who dislike LGBT people, with the exception of that “one guy that they know.”  I am sure you know the conversation.  Fact is, you usually find that most people are way more than any one label.  In fact, as primal an instinct as it might be, I want you to think for a second how little importance other people's sexual preference really has to you.  And, while we are at it, let's think a little bit about health insurance. 
Here's a little experiment I want you to try.  Next time you go in a Wal-Mart, I want you to look around and tell me how many people you see that you have had sex with.  Then I want you to think for a second what percentage of them you could care less if you ever have any social, let alone sexual contact with.  My guess is, for most of you, the number is really, really small.
Then I want you to look around and tell me how many of these same you would like to see get cancer? Not the untreatable kind, just the kind that is really expensive to beat.  Or how many would you like to see lose a kid because they were turned down at Redi-Med, sent home with nothing more than advice from the ER or MiChild was only going to cover one of four recommended treatments?  Is this number smaller or larger than the first list?  Thought so.
What I would hope you would find in this experiment is that, when it comes to the vast majority of people you encounter in your life, sex is nearly a non-issue between you.   And, even though I know that girl in the ripped pajama pants needs to die, you really don't wish that the people you come across are going to run into medical conditions they can't overcome.  And in America, that means you need benefits like health insurance.
You Fly Your Flag, I'll Fly Mine
There are some pretty simple solutions here.  For instance, legally recognizing LGBT relationships.  But, let's do it right.  Though a smattering of States allow same sex marriage, they often haven't fixed the rest of their statutes and gay couples find themselves unable to divorce, settle custody or clear probate court with a theoretically valid will.  We can do better than that. 
Heck, let's just let the churches have their marriages and allow any two adults to enter into a relationship for benefits and property rights, as that's what this comes down to in most instances.  And they really shouldn't have to prove to anyone they are having sex for any of this wealth to transfer out of a shear respect for privacy.  We can let the individuals involved decide how they celebrate love if they are lucky enough to find it.
An even more elegant solution would be a Single Payer health care system.  Then it wouldn't be an employee benefit or an “LGBT Right.”  It would be a family benefit and a human right - one that is currently granted in nearly every other “First World” nation.  
And, while we are at it, what do you think about tapping the rainbow for an update on the old Stars and Stripes?   It would look good with a splash of color.


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