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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 48
Boeing challenges marriage equality
Section One
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Boeing challenges marriage equality

No pension benefits for same-sex spouses, company says

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In the first challenge to the state's Marriage Equality Act since voters approved it on Election Day, Boeing told union representatives on November 21 that it would deny pension survivor benefits to same-sex spouses.

On November 29, Boeing's negotiating team walked out of talks with SPEEA (Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace), the union that represents Boeing engineers, during a discussion of the pension issues.

'Discussions during negotiations today [Nov. 29] included medical benefits, SPEEA salary raise pools, and the pension,' a SPEEA statement said.

'In the middle of our pension discussion, The Boeing Company stopped negotiating and recommended a federal mediator be brought in to assist our talks. The Boeing team then packed up and left.'

The company first announced its position at a November 21 contract negotiation with SPEEA.

STANCE SURPRISED UNION
'We were shocked,' SPEEA spokesperson Bill Dugovich told SGN by phone as he headed into contract talks with company representatives on November 27.

'It came about as a simple administrative question from us - 'How would the company handle benefits for new same-sex spouses?' Dugovich explained. 'Their statement was met with disappointment and with outrage on our part.'

A survivor benefit is a payment made by a pension plan to a surviving beneficiary, usually a spouse, when the employee dies. It is one way that married couples - same-sex or opposite-sex - can make sure at least one of the partners enjoys a secure retirement.

The SPEEA team was taken aback when Boeing asserted that they were not required to offer survivor benefits to same-sex spouses because their benefits package was administered under ERISA and not under state law.

FEDERAL VS. STATE LAW
ERISA - the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 - is a federal law enacted to regulate employee benefit plans, including health insurance and pensions. Many union benefits plans are administered under ERISA rather than state laws.

Because ERISA is a federal law, and DOMA forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, Boeing said it was not required to offer same-sex couples equal benefits.

SPEEA is not so sure, Dugovich said.

'We're consulting our attorneys,' Dugovich told SGN. 'Discrimination is discrimination. At some point discrimination laws come into play.'

SPEEA secured medical benefits for same-sex domestic partners in 2000, Dugovich added, and those benefits will remain unchanged, but the union expected Boeing to accept the state's new marriage law.

While SPEEA has been in negotiations with Boeing for many weeks, it is the marriage issue that has captured public interest, Dugovich told SGN.

'There's a whole litany of regular issues you go through [in a contract negotiation],' he said, 'but I've never seen the public's attention go to an issue like this.'

OPPOSITION SOFTENING?
Meanwhile, Boeing tried to walk back its flat refusal to pay survivor benefits. In response to an SGN inquiry, Boeing spokesperson Doug Alder said the company is 'studying' the issue.

'Boeing has informed employees that the company is taking a closer look at R-74 and its impact on current policies and benefits once the law goes into effect in Washington State in December,' Alder wrote in an e-mail to SGN.

'We're studying how any change to our pension plan would impact our growing pension obligations, and we'll continue to discuss it with SPEEA.

'Boeing is a leader in the areas of diversity and inclusion, and was one of the first companies in the country to offer domestic partner benefits.'

While SPEEA's bargaining updates continue to emphasize that the union is 'doing everything possible to avoid the need for a work stoppage,' Dugovich said the negotiations have not been productive.

'We haven't seen positive movement on any of our issues,' he told SGN.

SPEEA members overwhelmingly voted down a Boeing contract offer on October 1.

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