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Lotus Offers Benefits to Partners of Gay, Lesbian Employees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a ground-breaking move for a major public company, Lotus Development Corp. said Friday that it has begun providing health and other benefits to what it termed the “spousal equivalents” of gay and lesbian employees.

Russ Campanello, vice president for human resources, said the Cambridge, Mass., computer software company decided to recognize same-sex relationships “in the interest of fairness and equity” because such couples do not have the option of formalizing their partnerships through marriage.

Lotus said it asks employees and their partners seeking such benefits to sign a company-crafted “affidavit of spousal equivalence.” Spousal equivalents are required to live together and “be jointly responsible for the common welfare and financial obligations of both individuals.”

Equal rights advocates hailed the Lotus move. “It’s interesting that a company on the cutting edge of technology would also prove itself to be forward-thinking in its employee relations,” said William B. Rubenstein, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

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“Lotus has recognized that providing equal benefits for equal work is an investment in its employees’ productivity and morale,” added Evan Wolfson, staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. “We expect more employers to adopt such policies--either voluntarily, as at Lotus, or as a result of litigation.”

In New York, for example, the Gay Teachers Assn. and six individuals are suing the Board of Education over the board’s refusal to provide health benefits to the domestic partners of unmarried employees.

Last month, State Supreme Court Justice Karla B. Moskowitz rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case, the first time any state court judge has let go forward an employment discrimination claim based on the denial of benefits to domestic partners.

Earlier this year, Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, a nonprofit organization with 9,000 employees, also adopted a benefits policy for domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees.

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Campanello said Lotus reached its decision without threat of litigation after two years of research prompted by a request from a group of gay and lesbian workers. Reports from municipalities, nonprofit organizations and small employers that provide such benefits were “uniformly similar,” the executive wrote in a memo to all Lotus employees.

“Data indicates that coverage of same-sex employees and their partners has not significantly increased their per-capita health care expenses,” Campanello said. “Fears that AIDS will drive up costs have proven to be unfounded.”

He estimated that 10% of Lotus’ 3,100 employees are gay or lesbian but that far fewer will seek benefits.

Lotus is self-insured for health benefits, but a reinsurer provides protection if benefits exceed certain limits, he said.

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Under the new policy, Lotus employees will be able to secure medical, dental, vision and hearing health coverage for their spousal equivalents. Partners will also be relocated at the expense of Lotus when an employee is transferred.

“I feel valued,” said Margie Bleichman, a Lotus software engineer who helped develop the new benefits program. “It was the right thing to do, and I think Lotus saw it as the right thing to do.”

Lotus said it chose the term “spousal equivalent” over the more commonly used “domestic partner” or “significant other” to emphasize the fact that same-sex couples are not allowed to marry.

Rubenstein of the ACLU said the Lotus decision was especially significant because it “bucks a trend of companies trying to cut back on benefits.” He added: “After granting non-discrimination clauses to gays and lesbians in the ‘70s and ‘80s, partnership benefits are a natural next step.”

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