by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Less than 24 hours after Burlington Northern railroad was sued by two same-sex couples - one Gay and one Lesbian - who asked for health insurance coverage for their spouses, the railroad employers' association announced an agreement with railway workers' unions to cover same-sex spouses starting January 1.
Mike and Elijah Hall and Amie and Carol Garrand filed suit against Burlington Northern (BNSF), one of the country's largest railroads, on December 3. Mike Hall and Amie Garrand are BNSF employees who were denied health insurance coverage for their legally married spouses, even though the company provides health benefits to opposite-sex spouses.
The couples claimed that BNSF was violating the federal Equal Pay Act, and discriminating against them because of their sex.
'The failure to pay is based on sex because BNSF does pay for spousal health needs for employees and locomotive engineers if the employee is a female married to a male spouse, but does not pay for Elijah's health needs because Michael Hall is male,' court documents said.
At a press conference shortly after the suit was filed, plaintiffs' attorney Cleveland Stockmeyer accused BNSF of acting out of greed.
'These big companies are looking at their bottom line,' he said. 'They realize that a significant number of their employees are in same-sex marriages, and they want to deny them benefits to save money.'
Mike Hall, who said he married 'the love of my life' on Martin Luther King Day 2012, 'because it was an important day for equality,' told reporters he had gone to work for BNSF in part 'because they had an antidiscrimination policy in their company manual.'
Hall said he was 'disappointed' to be denied coverage for his husband, Elijah, because, as he was told, 'company policy is that a marriage is between a man and a woman.'
'I was told many times by BNSF, 'marriage is one man, one woman,' Hall said. 'I told them, 'Not in Washington state.' They still told me no.'
Stockmeyer pointed out that the company's health insurance brochure states that dependents eligible for coverage include 'your wife or husband,' without specifying the sex of the employee who has a wife or husband.
'Marriage isn't just one man one woman anymore,' Elijah Hall said. 'My marriage to Mikey is legal and it is marriage. Who is BNSF to say we're not married - that's discrimination, plain and simple - just because Mikey isn't a woman? He's a man and I am his husband, legally and in reality and BNSF has to recognize our marriage. Who are they to say we are not married?'
The denial of insurance for Elijah caused the couple considerable emotional stress, both of them said. There were also serious financial repercussions, because Elijah is HIV-positive, and requires expensive medications to remain healthy. Because BNSF refused to cover Elijah, the couple said, they were burdened with $2,400 per month in out-of-pocket medical expenses.
'BNSF has no business overriding the vote we had here to make same sex marriage legal,' Stockmeyer said. 'Who are they to judge? BNSF should stick to running railroads and stop telling Gay or Lesbian couples who are legally married that they are not.'
UNIONS AND EMPLOYERS COME TO AGREEMENT
Mike Elliott, a spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the union that represents Hall, also appeared at the press conference, and explained that BLET's understanding of their collective bargaining agreement with BNSF was that same-sex spouses should receive the same benefits as opposite-sex ones.
'We support the Halls and the Garrand family 100%,' he said. 'The railroad needs to step up and do the right thing.'
Twenty-four hours later, the employer's association - the NRLC (National Railway Labor Conference) - announced they had reached an understanding with the 13 unions that represent the country's rail workers that same-sex spouses will get equal benefits effective January 1, 2014.
'The nation's largest freight carriers will provide dependent health care coverage to eligible same-sex spouses of covered railroad employees effective Jan. 1, 2014,' the NLRC said.
'While this is not a benefit required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, the railroads agreed with labor to provide this benefit in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access the same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples.'
'This was the correct way to deal with the issue,' said Steve Forsberg, BNSF's director of external relations. 'Changes to the plan must come through the collective bargaining process or through the plan's governing committee because the agreement involves multiple employers and multiple unions.'
The unions had asked employers in September to clarify that same-sex spouses should get equal treatment, but, Elliot said, they had received no reply from the employers. None, that is, until the lawsuit was filed.
THE FIRST FIVE STEPS
On behalf of his clients, Stockmeyer said 'we welcome the change' but that BNSF officials 'have yet to contact me or our clients who sued them.' It was too soon, he told SGN in a lengthy email on December 5, to tell if the reports of a settlement were true.
Even if true, he added, 'it's one step out of about five they need to take.' Stockmeyer said they would 'continue to carry on the suit by serving the complaint on them and getting their response, etc. It's rather bothersome to me that they would suggest this change about wasn't legally required as this amounts to saying they can discriminate more - if they want to. Shocking!'
Among other reasons to press on with the lawsuit, Stockmeyer told SGN, was to establish that equal spousal benefits are, in fact required by federal law, 'so they can never be taken away.'
In addition, Stockmeyer said, the reported settlement did not provide for his clients' December medical bills or for damages for the year 2013, which he estimated at about $100,000 for both couples.
It also 'does not cover the past year of medical bills for the dozens or hundreds of other same sex marrieds working at BNSF - we don't know who they are or how many. Hopefully they will come forward.'
Finally, Stockmeyer said, 'They haven't said they will cover retirement and other benefits.'
No date had yet been set for hearings in the suit.
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