Gay employees ask for equal benefits in St. Louis CountyBolstered in part by victory at the polls last week, gay and lesbian employees of St. Louis County on Tuesday asked the County Board to treat them the same as other employees when it comes to benefits.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Bolstered in part by victory at the polls last week, gay and lesbian employees of St. Louis County on Tuesday asked the County Board to treat them the same as other employees when it comes to benefits.
Several gay and lesbian employees joined about a dozen supporters during the County Board’s regular meeting in Duluth on Tuesday to petition the board for equal use of sick time and funeral leave to care for and grieve for their partners.
Current county labor contracts don’t include gay and lesbian partners for those benefits — only married spouses.
The employees also asked county commissioners to send a resolution urging the state Legislature to overturn state statutes that prevent municipalities from offering “spousal” benefits to gay and lesbian partners and to dump the current state law that prevents gays from marrying.
“A lot of energy went into opposing the constitutional amendment and now, with that over, we felt the time was right to bring this forward with the county,” said Mike Welch, a county employee. “This is something we’ve been looking at for a long time.”
Paula Stocke, a county family services supervisor in Mountain Iron, said she was proud of her service as a county employee since 2001.
“What would make me even more proud is if the county would offer same-sex benefits for people like me,” Stocke said, noting her family must buy extra, more expensive insurance because her partner can’t be covered under the county policy because her partner is not legally her spouse.
“If I could do anything more to make her my spouse, I would,” Stocke said, a reference to state law that prevents them from being legally married in the state.
Stocke, Welch and others said more employees would have come forward Tuesday but were fearful of retribution if others knew they were gay.
County commissioners did not comment after the employees’ impassioned pleas. The issue was not on the agenda but came during the regular time slot set aside for public comments.
The county has considered sick leave and funeral leave and when they can be used a contractual issue to be resolved during labor negotiations, said Kevin Gray, county administrator. But he acknowledged that it is not a black-and-white issue when it comes to same-sex partners.
“It’s something where we really have one foot in two places,” Gray said after the meeting.
Stocke said allowing her to take care of her partner is a simple matter of human rights and could be unilaterally included by county commissioners or county administrators outside of any contract talks.
“Don’t put my dignity on the negotiating table,” Stocke asked of commissioners.
County Commissioner Frank Jewell of Duluth said he supports the effort of county employees.
“I think we’ll have a response. I’m not sure if it will be as a board, formally with a resolution, or whether administration can accomplish the same thing internally for funeral and sick leave. But, one way or the other, this is basic human rights that we need to address,” Jewell said after the meeting. “How far we go trying to overturn the state law that won’t let us offer medical or dental benefits to these people … that remains to be seen.”
The move by county employees came one week after Minnesota voters said “no” to a constitutional amendment that would have enshrined the state law that says marriage could only be between one man and one woman. Voters in Duluth rejected the amendment nearly 2-1, and it failed across St. Louis County by a 56-44 margin.
Mary Bridgett Lawson, a county employee, told commissioners that offering the same soft benefits, sick time and funeral time for partners, is a step toward equal treatment that also should include family health-care benefits for partners.
“We will no longer dwell or live in the shadows of discrimination,” Lawson said. “My colleagues and I have just endured a year of having our dignity voted on. More than half our brothers and sisters stood with us on the side of love.”
Joaquim Harris, the county’s employee recruitment and retention specialist, said it was difficult to attract gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender prospects to work for the county because of the benefits gap. Andrea Gelb, a 33-year veteran county employee, agreed. Supporters noted many large private employers already offer benefits to same-sex couples.
“The time to fix that is now. It’s really your responsibility,” Gelb said to the County Board. “This is not about negotiating a benefit, but about fundamental fairness.”
Welch said local AFSCME officials already have agreed to sign a memo of understanding to allow the extended benefits without formally negotiating it as part of the standing labor contract.