By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
Across the Board
We are writing in response to Tara Shioya's story on our legislation prohibiting the city from spending taxpayer money on contracts with companies that discriminate in benefits offered to employees in domestic partnerships as compared to employees in marriages ("In Sickness and In Health?" Jan. 8), just as we are currently prevented from entering into contracts with companies that discriminate based on race, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other improper criteria. Your article was not only one-sided and biased, but it contained numerous factual inaccuracies.
The article criticizes the city by claiming that the December hearing before the Human Rights Commission and the Small Business Advisory Commission was the first time city officials met with the business community regarding this legislation and gives the appearance that the business community is opposed to this civil rights bill. This is simply not true. From the time the legislation was first proposed last May, it has been the subject of numerous meetings and public hearings. Members of the Board of Supervisors, and other city officials, met with business leaders on numerous occasions prior to the hearing and prior to the ordinance being voted on by the board. In fact, several of the meetings were held at the Chamber of Commerce.
This legislation was subject to two public committee hearings, at which the president of the Chamber of Commerce and the executive director of the Committee on Jobs spoke. That may explain why the Chamber's president publicly endorsed the implementation of this legislation at the December hearing, something your article chose to ignore. Similarly you also chose to ignore the statements of the former president of the Golden Gate Business Association who backed the legislation. Instead, you selectively quoted one small-business owner who expressed concerns. Unfortunately, your reporter only attended the last 10 minutes of the hearing and did not hear the vast majority of comments from businesses, including the president of the Chamber of Commerce.
Your article also belittles the importance of this bill by noting that typically only 1 to 2 percent of all employees take advantage of these benefits. When one considers that the majority of individuals in domestic partnerships are same-gender couples who cannot marry, and that individuals who receive benefits through their own job would typically not apply for them through their partner's employer, the percentage is not surprising. What this law will do is promote nondiscrimination and equity in the workplace, benefiting businesses by increasing morale, company loyalty, and productivity and reducing absenteeism. That is the reason that companies like IBM, Disney, Apple, and The Gap, to name a few, already ensure nondiscrimination in the provision of benefits. This law will result in savings for the city, not only because more people will receive benefits, but because city contractors will have more productive work forces.
Finally, your article gives a very one-sided view of the potential legal challenge to this ordinance. Due to the possibility of litigation we will not comment in depth on this issue. However, your article chose to quote only one attorney who represents businesses instead of law professors or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) experts working with the state and federal government. Further, only certain benefits even relate to ERISA. The requirement not to discriminate in the provision of the other benefits, such as family medical leave, bereavement leave, health club memberships, travel allowances for spouses, child care, and other benefits often denied domestic partners but not discussed in your article, is clearly legal under state and federal law, irrespective of ERISA.
We are proud not only of this landmark bill, which once again demonstrates how San Francisco leads the nation in ensuring equality, but also of how well the board, the mayor, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community, and the business community worked together to do the right thing.
As the Human Rights Commission employee responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the new Domestic Partner Benefits Ordinance, I was quite surprised and very disappointed in the cover story "In Sickness and In Health?" I spoke on many occasions with Tara Shioya and provided her with enough information to make the article's one-sidedness unnecessary.
Of course there are concerns about this groundbreaking legislation. The city understands that any time legislation outlawing discrimination is created, it can have an impact on business. We also understand that we need the help of city contractors to end the discrimination faced by their employees with domestic partners. That's why we are taking extra measures to provide the assistance these businesses need.
From her description of the meeting the city had with concerned members of the public, it seems as though Shioya attended only the last few minutes. Rhea Serpan, president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of the legislation. The Chamber, which describes itself as having 2,000 members representing a wide array of businesses, welcomed the opportunity to work with the city to facilitate a smooth and equitable implementation of the law. Mr. Serpan then went on to share with us some useful suggestions regarding the law's implementation.
Human resource consultants described the success experienced by companies that had implemented domestic-partner benefits, and one commented that he knew of no company which had regretted the decision. We then heard from a series of small-business owners, other business community representatives, and individuals with additional suggestions, questions, and concerns. The only person to express any outright frustration with the legislation was the one person heavily quoted in the article.
Instead of negatively characterizing the temperature of the meeting room or the weariness of the panelists, why didn't the article mention the city's plan to offer workshops to current and potential contractors on what this law means and how it will be implemented? Why didn't it mention the Insurance Fair the Human Rights Commission is organizing? What happened to the description of the sample policies, ongoing technical assistance, and the many, many calls for assistance that have been successfully handled by the Human Rights Commission?
Perhaps the most alarming omission in the story was the failure to mention the positive effect this legislation will have. It didn't discuss the long history of discrimination same-sex couples face and the many ways in which employees with domestic partners are denied equal pay for equal work because of the added value of benefits received by their married co-workers. Members of the public commented on this at the Dec. 17 meeting, but somehow it didn't make it into print.
Finally, the article points to The Gap's introduction of domestic-partner benefits as bearing "mixed results." This negative characterization doesn't pan out, even within the article's own words. The enrollment levels experienced by The Gap are consistent with other companies. This is true for a number of reasons, including the tax implications to the employee and the fact that many domestic partners already have coverage through their own employer. How is this negative? The Gap is able to hold itself out as progressive-minded, hire from the quality applicant pool generated by offering the most competitive benefits package, and do so without increasing their risk pool or cost of premiums.
The commission is proud to work with San Franciscans who desire to end discrimination, and we will continue to diligently communicate our efforts to the public.
Cynthia G. Goldstein
Human Rights Commission
Tara Shioya replies: Nowhere does the article "claim" that the December meeting was the first time city officials met with the business community regarding the legislation. However, the article should have stated more clearly that this was the first meeting held among the city's Human Rights Commission, the Small Business Advisory Commission, and businesses specifically to discuss the new domestic-partner benefits law. Nowhere does the article say that the business community opposes the new law -- and any such inference is unjustified.
The sidebar on The Gap Inc. does not "belittle" the bill -- it simply states that fewer than 1 percent of Gap employees take advantage of domestic-partner benefits because those benefits are considered taxable income.
On sources, several legal experts were interviewed for this story. All concurred that the city's new law is certain to encounter challenges under ERISA and the National Labor Relations Act. Ironically, the supervisors themselves concede "the possibility of litigation."
The Human Rights Commission may be organizing fairs, workshops, and the like, but the point stands that the HRC had little information for business owners at the time the article ran. The business owner quoted was one of several people interviewed -- many of whom were not at the December meeting -- who echoed his frustrations.
I wanted to say what a great article your "In Sickness and In Health?" was. Actually, it was upsetting news for me because I am going to ask my employer if they would recognize domestic partnership. Now I know what they are up against, and myself too!
Your article gave me a lot of information that I have been unsuccessfully seeking. I belong to the Human Rights Campaign, who I asked awhile ago for info on domestic partnership. I will let them know I found a lot of my answers in your magazine, before they ever responded back!
It's great to see well-publicized magazines bring forward what is really happening. On the top of the cake domestic partnership sounds great, but the more you look into it it's more like Swiss cheese ... that smells!
This article has prompted me to start getting involved in trying to help clear up this unfair situation. I didn't realize this domestic partnership thing was so unjust. It seems like we always get short-ended, even if we think we are finally getting some fair treatment.
Thanks again for your article, and putting it on the cover, too. That's what prompted me to pick it up. Keep up the great work!