More than eight months after going into effect, the city's Equal Benefits Ordinance (EBO) is facing its first challenge: Qwest, which employs around 1,000 workers in the metro area, is asking to be excused from a key provision of the law—and it looks like they'll get it.
But Qwest isn't on the outs with the city because they aren't offering benefits to same-sex partners—they've offered those benefits since 1998. Ironically, they're out of compliance because they aren't covering unmarried straight partners.
When city council approved the ordinance last spring, the intent was to require city contractors to offer health benefits to their employees' domestic partners, but only if the companies also provided benefits to legally married spouses. On the surface, the idea was to protect same-sex partners, but the law didn't discriminate based on sexual orientation—contractors are required to offer benefits to unmarried opposite-sex partners as well.
And that's where Qwest's challenge comes in. The company is asking to be exempted from having to cover straight partners on a $5 to $10 million contract with the city for 911 services. And since Qwest is the only company who can fill the contract, they are entitled to the waiver through a "sole source" provision of the EBO.
"The intent of the ordinance is to make sure that same-sex partners don't get less than straight partners... We feel we're totally in compliance with the spirit of the ordinance," says Judy Peppler, Qwest's Oregon president.
"We have 37,000 employees and a large number of retirees, which means that there are over 150,000 people that we cover," Peppler adds. "From a company perspective, we had to draw the line somewhere. We started covering same-sex partners in 1998 because it only seemed fair that they get the same benefits that legally married couples get. We drew the line at unmarried straight couples because they have the option to get legally married."
So everything's coming up roses, right? The city gets its network for emergency calls, Qwest doesn't have to cover unmarried straight partners, and same-sex partners continue to get health benefits from the company. Except, there's this: If this was a "competitive bid" contract, with at least one other company that was entirely compliant with the Equal Benefits Ordinance, Qwest would be out of luck, even though they cover same-sex partners.
"Qwest appears to be honoring the intent of the ordinance, which is to provide benefits to same-sex domestic partners," says mayoral staffer Kevin Easton. "If this was a competitive bid, with one company fully in compliance and one not, it'd be a different story."
Given that the policy is less than a year old, chances are this will be a frequent problem. So, Chuck and Larry aside, why does the city require benefits for heterosexual domestic partners, especially given the reality that they can legally get married, and that otherwise qualified, wholly pro-gay companies may get shut out of city contracts?
The reason: Two well-meaning, progressive ideas have collided head-on. Due to its own longstanding non-discrimination policy, the city can't make policy distinctions based on marital status. In other words, it would violate city code to have a policy just for gays and lesbians. The result of that collision won't be known for months, as more contracts come before city council.
City council is expected to vote on the contract in the next two weeks. If council objects to the waiver, they can send the whole contract back to the bureaus. But given the scope of the contract, and of the 911 system's recent high-profile performance issues, a rejection of Qwest's challenge is unlikely.