The Pierce County Council narrowly approved on Tuesday plans to extend health benefits to the domestic partners of county employees.
Now employees who have same-sex or opposite-sex partners will get the same medical, dental and other benefits as those currently enjoyed by married employees.
Supporters hailed the move as a sound business decision and an overdue step to equalize the benefits of county employees.
“It’s not just about dollars and cents,” Denise Whitley, an attorney in the county’s Department of Assigned Counsel, told the council. “It’s about making employees feel valued.”
The council vote was 4-3 in favor of the measure. The council’s three Democrats – Tim Farrell, Barbara Gelman and Calvin Goings – supported it, along with Republican Shawn Bunney. Council Republicans Roger Bush, Terry Lee and Dick Muri opposed it.
To qualify for benefits, employees and their partners would have to meet several conditions.
Among other requirements, they would have to share a permanent residence, have a close personal relationship, be jointly responsible for basic living expenses, and be at least 18 years old. They could not be married to anyone else or be close blood relatives as defined by Washington marriage laws.
To apply for benefits, they would have to sign an affidavit indicating that if the partnership ends the ineligible partner would be removed from the benefit program within 30 days.
County Executive John Ladenburg told the council the benefits change was needed to recruit and retain employees in a competitive marketplace.
“We ought to be as generous as we can with benefits and wages,” Ladenburg said.
He also framed the issue in terms of fairness and diversity. He said some people – same-sex partners – cannot legally marry and qualify for county benefits, while others choose not to marry.
Ladenburg called the benefits change “one more step recognizing all the kinds of people who live in our society.”
That sentiment was echoed by several dozen people who testified in favor of the ordinance, including some county employees.
At least 17 other Washington governments and many private businesses already offer domestic partner benefits. Other governments with benefits programs similar to Pierce County’s told county officials that it costs them almost nothing to offer the benefits.
Pierce County has more than 3,300 employees. Mike Panagiotu, the county’s director of risk management, said his conversations with insurers indicate that 50 to 75 employees in one county insurance plan would likely apply for partner benefits over the next three to five years. He said that would have “little if any impact on premiums.”
Councilmen Lee and Muri weren’t convinced. They expressed concern about the future cost of extending benefits. Lee also questioned extending benefits to domestic partners when the dependent children of some employees – including Lee himself – are not covered beginning at age 23.
But the council majority favored the change.
“Today we have two groups of county employees,” said Goings, the ordinance’s chief sponsor. “We have county employees with full benefits and we have county employees without full benefits. That’s not fair.”
“Government’s role is not to choose how people live their lives,” Bunney said.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341