Pending legislation to provide federal employees with domestic partners the same access as married employees and their spouses to participate in benefit programs would underscore the federal government’s traditional role as a model employer, NTEU National President Colleen Kelley told a Senate committee on September 23.
Traditionally, the private sector is encouraged, but not mandated, to adopt employee benefit programs in place in the federal government through its good example and resulting market forces as the nation’s largest employer, Kelley said. However, she said, in this situation we are seeing the reverse. “The federal government is no longer in the forefront, but is behind,” President Kelley said in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Over 53 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits as do many public employers. “Market forces and the good example of the private sector now put this issue before the federal sector,” she added.
Moreover, approval of S. 2521, the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act, would enhance the government’s competitive position in its efforts to recruit the high-quality employees federal agencies need, particularly in the wake of a looming wave of federal retirements. According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), more than half of the federal government’s employees will become eligible for retirement in the next 10 years. “OPM needs to step up its marketing and outreach,” Kelley said, noting that the government will be competing against the private sector for employees.
“Given this reality, it is simply unacceptable that the federal government does not offer benefits equal to or better than the private firms the government is competing with,” President Kelley said.
The interest in extending to domestic partners access to such benefits as the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, retirement and disability plans, federal group life insurance and long-term care insurance is widespread in NTEU-represented workplaces, Kelley told the committee.
“As the exclusive bargaining representative for over 150,000 federal employees, NTEU is the first to hear from those we represent about pay, benefits and working conditions. Domestic partner benefits are a concern our members raise frequently,” she said.
Kelley also noted importantly the pending legislation would provide not only for benefits but for obligations as well. It would “require federal employees and their domestic partners to be subject to the same duties, obligations and ethics requirements that married federal employees are mandated to follow. I want to emphasize that this bill proposes both benefits and obligations.”
S. 2521, the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act, was introduced by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of senators. Since this is not a matter that can be resolved in contract negotiations, NTEU is seeking legislation that would extend these important benefits to same-gender partners. Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. While it is unlikely either the Senate or House bill will see any further action before Congress adjourns for the year, the hearing on Wednesday will help set the stage for our efforts in the new Congress. Senator Lieberman has promised to reintroduce his bill next year.