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Has same-sex marriage changed employee benefits?Not really, say HR pros

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Pennsylvania officially began recognizing same-sex marriage on May 20, 2014, beating the U.S. Supreme Court's historic decision by about 13 months.

While the rulings brought dramatic change to the legal landscape and the wedding business, they have not altered the approach taken by human resources departments and other HR professionals in Central Pennsylvania. Not much has changed in the last year, and it doesn't look like there's any reason to expect it to, according to some local HR pros.

A spouse is a spouse

Like Karen A. Young says, “A spouse is a spouse is a spouse.”

The founder and president of HR Resolutions in Lower Paxton Township, Young says since same-sex marriage has been recognized in Pennsylvania, “It's no different from a human resources standpoint.”

She stresses that her clients haven't run into any legal issues over gay marriage, and that the only kind of “challenges” they've faced are minor:

“Employers sometimes forget things like, when you create your employee handbook, you shouldn't discuss the gender of spouses or make assumptions,” Young says. “But that's really the only kind of problem I've seen.”

Following the state's lead

Cathy Tama-Troutman, vice president of human resources at Susquehanna Township-based PSECU, says the credit union's approach has been to “follow what state law says.”

“That has always guided our benefits program decisions,” and that includes same-sex marriage, she explains.

PSECU doesn't cover domestic partner benefits, however.

“Since the state stopped recognizing common law marriage in 2005, we don't cover it,” Tama-Troutman says. “We only recognize the legal relationship.”

Additionally, married or not, gay or straight, PSECU doesn't offer health care coverage for spouses who are covered elsewhere.

“We have to exercise caution on our expenses, especially as a not-for-profit credit union,” she notes. “The difficult thing these days is that employees really have to understand their benefit programs. Couples didn't have to compare health plans in the past, so that's caused some discomfort. But everyone's in the same boat now, and it doesn't have anything to do with gender.”

Discrimination in spite of marriage equality

Ben Allatt is an HR professional with Alternative HR, a York-based human resources firm, and a member of Harrisburg City Council since January 2014. He's also chapter president of Human Resource Professionals of Central Pennsylvania.

Long before marriage equality was made law, many Pennsylvania businesses were already considering how to respond to “changing social situations,” albeit carefully, he says.

“They didn't want to define 'family' for their employees because they thought it was a slippery slope,” Allatt explains. “So, many HR professionals, myself included, challenged organizations not just to offer advocacy for same-sex couples in the social sense, but to consider going a step further and offering domestic partner benefits. We said, 'Don't wait for the law to catch up.'”

And when same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania in May 2014, it “automatically allowed spousal benefits under any program,” Allatt says. “Most companies in our area are interested in doing the right thing by all their employees, so they've come on board with it. I get very little resistance when I talk to companies because they want to be inclusive and promote an atmosphere of acceptance.”

Still, he says, while the commonwealth has marriage equality, it doesn't have a non-discrimination law regarding gay marriage.

“You can still be fired for marrying your same-sex partner in Pennsylvania,” Allatt says. “I haven't heard of any cases where that's occurred locally, but outside our area it could be a completely different scenario. A lot of people still don't want to admit to being gay for fear that they'll lose their jobs.”

He says it's “frustrating” to watch the legislative process regarding non-discrimination.

“Some politicians are afraid to step up,” he notes. “But equality measures shouldn't be up for debate on the House or Senate floor anyway. It's just the right thing to do.”

As for being gay himself, Allatt says it makes him “a better advocate” for his clients.

“But I try to keep my personal life out of it,” he notes. “I tell employers all the time that their job is to protect their employees' rights. And offering inclusive policies is part of that.”

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Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline covers York County, nonprofits, workforce and education. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at larryp@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @CPBJLarryP. Circle Larry Portzline on .

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