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Council OKs Leave for Unwed Partners

Times Staff Writer

Unmarried Los Angeles city employees living with a “domestic partner” are entitled to the same sick leave and bereavement leave allowances as members of traditional families under an ordinance adopted Wednesday.

The ordinance, approved on a 10-2 vote and subject to approval of the mayor, applies to unmarried couples whether heterosexual or homosexual.

The measure reflects “the changing definition of the family,” said Councilman Michael Woo, who sponsored the ordinance. Existing policies, he said, “were out of step with reality.”

An opponent, Councilman Ernani Bernardi, meanwhile, portrayed the measure as a troubling “gay ordinance” with hidden social costs.

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The ordinance affords city employees not married to their mates the same personal leave considerations granted members of traditional families in the instance of sickness or death. The city provides three days of paid bereavement leave when a member of a city employee’s immediate family dies, and paid sick leave may be taken for other family emergencies.

To quality for such benefits, unmarried couples would have to file confidential affidavits with the city affirming they have lived together for the previous 12 months, have a “mutual obligation of support,” “share the common necessities of life,” are each other’s sole domestic partner, are not related by blood and that neither partner is married. It was estimated that 5% to 8% of the city’s 43,537 full-time employees may qualify.

With the council’s vote, Los Angeles became the largest municipality to recognize non-traditional “domestic partners,” Woo said. San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Monica and West Hollywood have similar policies, he said.

The new policy, Woo told the council, would provide “a greater sense of equity for those who do not belong to traditional family units.”

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The policy change sparked a brief debate, with Bernardi calling it “a gay ordinance.”

Other council members pointed out it would also apply to unmarried heterosexual couples.

Nonetheless, Bernardi said he was troubled by the values the policy would reflect. “This is a major change. . . . It’s what the social cost is, that’s my problem with this,” he said. Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores also voiced reservations about the policy change, citing a staff report that estimated a potential loss of productivity of $2.3 million a year. Flores also suggested that the personnel policy could lead to changes in insurance and retirement policies and might involve city records as a source of evidence for “palimony” cases.

Generic Proposal

As an alternative, Flores proposed a “generic” personal leave for all employees as an alternative.

But Woo and Councilman Joel Wachs argued that Flores’ proposal would be more costly to the city. Moreover, they questioned the $2.3-million estimate. They noted, for example, that an employee who now takes a sick day to tend to an ailing relative loses that day from his sick leave allotment. Under present circumstances, Wachs said, an employee taking time off to care for a domestic partner can simply call in sick. The new policy, Wachs said, would mean the employee “wouldn’t have to lie.”

After Flores’ proposal failed on a 5-7 vote, the council affirmed the new policy, 10 to 2.

In an interview, Woo said that gay employees in particular have often felt the “injustice” of existing policies because of sickness and death from AIDS.

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