Domestic Disturbance

Rally Pushes City Hall to Pass Equal Benefits Bill

As the nationwide war over gay rights continued to escalate this week, New York City staged a quiet but crucial battle of its own.

This morning, the City Council Contracts Committee heard the final round of testimony in support of Intro 271, an equal-benefits bill that would affect any company doing business with the City of New York. Under this law, any company with a City contract worth $100,000 or more would be required to offer employees with domestic partners the same benefits offered to employees with spouses, including health insurance and bereavement and family medical leave. The bill has a veto-proof majority of 38 sponsors, and should see the Council floor by the end of spring.

If you want a contract with us for goods and services, said Contracts Committee Chair Robert Jackson, you must give everyone the same benefits. Otherwise, he warned, "you will not do business with us."

Similar measures passing in New Jersey, San Francisco, Seattle, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles. Even lame-duck California governor Gray Davis signed a nationwide bill into law just before leaving office. However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposes the bill, objecting to using city money to effect social change. He also believes that the additional conditions would force potential contractors to abandon New York City, which in turn could drive up costs.

But this argument stopped making sense the minute Bloomberg signed into law the Living Wage Bill, which required contractors to pay workers a wage above the federal minimum. In addition, hundreds of companies already offer domestic partnerships, including one-third of the Fortune 500. Since thousands of New Yorkers (including all City employees) already have domestic partnership benefits, costs would be minimal. Bloomberg's waffling on this issue—he supported the Equal Benefits Bill during his 2001 mayoral campaign, only to withdraw that support after his election—drew harsh words from Councilmembers and community leaders at a press conference immediately following the hearing.

"We have an unprecedented opportunity to level that playing field," said Councilmember Yvette Clarke, referring to the gap in employment benefits between employees who are married and employees with domestic partners. "We will work with our colleagues to ensure that regardless of the mindset of the mayor, we will make our stand for equality."

"While the threat of a constitutional amendment against gay marriage looms, it is crucial that local governments, by acting to the fullest extent the law allows, send a clear message to the federal government that LGBT Americans and families deserve recognition and dignity," said Councilmember and lead sponsor Christine Quinn, adding that Bloomberg "missed an opportunity to send a message to our Republican president" about equality.

"Let me be very clear about this," said Councilmember Margarita Lopez, "we don't have domestic-partnership benefits in New York City. Municipal workers have them. The City of New York does not."

Of the 17,133 people currently registered as domestic partners with the City Clerk's office, approximately 70 percent of those are heterosexual. As Jeff Catanese, a heterosexual domestic partner, testified, "Those couples who do not or cannot get married, whether by choice or by law or due to other factors, are left out in the cold when it comes to workplace benefits."

"It's time for the Mayor of the greatest city in the world to step up and lead," he said.

 
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