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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 4 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 40
New federal rules force change at ExxonMobil - Oil giant will now offer spousal benefits to same-sex partners
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New federal rules force change at ExxonMobil - Oil giant will now offer spousal benefits to same-sex partners

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

ExxonMobil, long considered one of the most anti-Gay corporations, announced on September 27 that it would now extend benefits to same-sex spouses.

Before the announcement, the company had recognized same-sex marriages in some 30 countries around the world where it operates and where same-sex unions are legal, but it had refused to recognize same-sex marriages even in U.S. states that allow them.

Exxon had long asserted that because its employee benefits are governed by federal laws, and DOMA forbade recognition of same-sex marriages, it did not have to offer anything to Gay and Lesbian spouses.

However, new U.S. Labor Department guidelines issued on September 18 said unequivocally that married same-sex spouses have the right to participate in employee benefit plans even if they live in states that do not recognize their marriage.

The new guidelines open the way for Gay and Lesbian spouses in companies like ExxonMobil to enjoy the same federal rights as other married couples when it comes to pensions, 401(k)s, health plans, and similar benefits.

The Labor Department administers employee benefits packages that fall under the scope of ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974), and that includes most of the country's largest private-sector employers. Except for a few specific exceptions, ERISA supersedes state laws.

TURNING TIDE
Exxon said in a statement that the changes reflected new federal policy.

'We have made no change in the definition of eligibility for our U.S. benefit plans,' the company said. 'Spousal eligibility in our U.S. benefit plans has been and continues to be governed by the federal definition of marriage and spouse.'

Exxon added that it would recognize 'all legal marriages.'

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who has used his control over his state's retirement fund investments to try to force change at Exxon, welcomed the company's new policy.

'Today's announcement by ExxonMobil shows the tide is continuing to turn in corporate America,' he said in a statement.

'This is a very positive step for the LGBT community and a vindication of years of efforts by shareholders and activists across the country.'

New York's retirement fund owns 13.5 million Exxon shares valued at about $1.2 billion.

Other LGBT rights activists also praised Exxon's decision.

'After years of stubbornly refusing, we commend Exxon for joining the majority of the Fortune 500 business leaders that already treat Gay and Lesbian married couples equally under employee benefit plans,' Tico Almeida, founder and president of Freedom to Work, said in a statement.

INCOMPLETE VICTORY
While Exxon is complying with new federal rules on spousal benefits, it still does not have nondiscrimination policies protecting sexual orientation and gender identity. In May shareholders voted down a resolution introduced by DiNapoli requiring LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies. It was the 14th year in a row the company refused to adopt such policies.

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