MONTPELIER — The state of Vermont may have given its blessing to gay marriage, but some employers here have yet to follow suit.
And for the gay Vermonters working at national companies headquartered outside this state, the lack of recognition can mean more than hurt feelings.
“There are people in the state who are not able to access health coverage simply because their spouse’s employer refuses to recognize their marriage,” says Rep. Paul Poirier, a Barre City independent. “We passed gay marriage, but a lot of people still can’t get the benefits of marriage.”
Wal-Mart, for instance, extends health coverage to the spouses of its workers — unless they happen to be gay. According to Susan Donegan, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, there’s nothing illegal about the unequal treatment.
“We’ve got a situation where employers who have their own self-funded, generally large insurance group fall outside the jurisdiction of our state insurance laws,” Donegan says.
The state also lacks authority over companies that have bricks-and-mortar locations in Vermont but are headquartered out of state.
“Is it the right thing to do (to deny spousal benefits)? I would say no,” Donegan says. “But there are companies that do that and it is perfectly legal.”
Perhaps not for much longer, however. Poirier and Rep. Patti Komline, a Dorset Republican, are drafting legislation that would require all companies that offer spousal benefits to straight employees to do the same for their gay workers.
Donegan says she doesn’t have any data on how many businesses or workers the proposed legislation would affect.
“But you have to assume it’s a significant number of people,” Poirier says.
Donegan says legislation enacted recently in California might offer a model for Vermont.
Randy Hargrove, director of national public relations for Wal-Mart, says the company won’t comment on Poirier’s bill until it’s been introduced in Montpelier. He confirmed that Wal-Mart “does not offer domestic partner … benefits,” though he said that executive leadership will “continue to evaluate” its compensation packages. Since the passage of a similar law in California, Hargrove said, the company has extended spousal benefits to gay employees in that state.
“We comply with state law,” he said.
Poirier, who along with Komline spent the summer and fall urging Wal-Mart to extend the benefits voluntarily, said he was told by executives that they would comply with whatever legislation he could get enacted in Montpelier.
“So they won’t do it on their own, but they said they will follow state laws,” Poirier says. “So we’re going to make a new law.”
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