Benefits Approved For Some Same-Sex Couples

Published: Aug 18 2011 11:53:13 AM EDT   Updated On: Jan 19 2011 11:35:58 AM EST
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

WEB EXCLUSIVE -- Allentown City Council extended the opportunity for same-sex partner health benefits to more than half of the city's employees Wednesday night.

Council unanimously approved an ordinance that took on several amendments in the final minutes before the vote after legal questions arose. After the passage of the bill, same-sex partners of city employees who are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Municipal Employee Supervisory Association (MESA) as well as non-union employees are eligible to receive equal health benefits as married couples.

"Harrisburg is the land of 'no'," said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, a statewide advocacy organization that has championed the cause. "You have shown Allentown to be the city of 'yes' and you're doing what is right. This will turn into, and has already become, a national story."

Council members added several amendments to the original bill after not receiving signed memorandums of understanding (MOU) from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the International Association of Fire Fighters. City Council's legal counsel advised that the fire and police unions could become part of the legislation at a later date.

Allentown Managing Director Ken Bennington said both the fire and police unions were optimistic about joining the legislation.

"We don't want to speculate on a timetable for when they'll sign their memorandum, they are having their lawyers do their due diligence making sure everything is legal," said Bennington.

Council members also included an amendment that currently restricts pension benefits to only the partners of SEIU and MESA employees. Those groups are able to include the pension benefits because of their participation in the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System, which already allows retirees to designate anyone, including a same-sex partner, as a beneficiary.

Before the vote was taken, officials were worried that the bill may have to be tabled so that all of the questions could be answered.

"I don't see why this is an issue," said councilman Michael Donovan. "Why the heck should anyone decide who should and shouldn't get benefits. We're all human, we're all the same."

Many council members thought that after a committee meeting vetted all possible issues two weeks ago, that an affirmative vote was imminent.

"What concerns me, is that we had everyone here two weeks ago and some of these issues were not brought up," said councilwoman Jeannette Eichenwald. "Every time we take two steps forward, we're confronted with legal issues."

Councilman Peter Schweyer made the case that since all of council was in favor of getting this done, that they should move forward with the SEIU, MESA and non-union employees, with the understanding that police and fire could join later.

"Are we going to let them hold up the process? asked Schweyer. "Three groups are adversely impacted by the time taken by the two smaller groups to finish their review. I think we need to move forward on this tonight."

According to recent figures, this addition of same-sex partners to the benefit plan in Allentown will add less than 1 percent of the 1,000 workforce to the rolls. Some estimates have the number at three to four people.

City officials expect the fire and police unions to accept the offer proposed by the city. City Council would then have to prepare a new ordinance to include them in the bill passed Wednesday.