Equality Revoked

Lambda Legal asks a court to restore domestic-partner benefits for state employees

The last time the state of Arizona seemed even remotely forward-thinking was in the fall of 2008, when then-Gov. Janet Napolitano approved benefits for all domestic partners of state employees.

It was a different time, before Arizona was known for SB 1070, the banning of ethnic studies and state Sen. Russell Pearce's quest to dismantle the U.S. Constitution by preventing children born in the United States from automatically gaining citizenship.

In the October 2, 2008, issue of the Tucson Weekly (see "Achieving Equality"), gay and lesbian employees at the UA rejoiced at the prospect of finally being able to register their partners and children for benefits.

Keith Humphrey, an associate dean of students, told the Weekly back then that a celebration was planned.

"Everyone is thrilled this has finally come," said Humphrey, who has three children with his partner, two with special needs.

Just a few months later, Napolitano left Arizona for Washington, D.C., to serve as President Obama's secretary of homeland security. And in September 2009, the Republican-dominated state Legislature passed a bill that excluded domestic partners and their children as dependents. Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill, and benefits are supposed to officially end on Oct. 1, 2010.

In response, Lambda Legal, a national LGBT legal and advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit against the state in the U.S. District Court. On Monday, June 28, Lambda's lead attorney in the lawsuit, Tara Borelli, headed to Phoenix for the first hearing in the case, Collins v. Brewer.

Borelli told the Weekly that the court was going to hear arguments on two motions. One is the attorney general's motion to dismiss Lambda's lawsuit; the second is a motion from Lambda seeking a preliminary injunction that would keep the benefits in place.

"There have been other cases, but not one quite like this. In the past, other employees have sued to obtain benefits. Here is a case where the state provided the benefits, then took them away," Borelli said.

State officials have argued that the revocation of benefits was needed due to budget constraints, but Lambda and Borelli say that it's wrong to balance the state budget by discriminating against a minority of workers and their families.

Borelli and the plaintiffs don't expect the judge to issue an immediate decision on either motion. "After the hearing, we just wait for the judge's decision," which could take weeks, she said before the hearing.

UA employees like Humphrey have less to worry about than other state employees. In May, the UA announced it was putting together a private insurance plan to cover the loss of the state benefits.

Humphrey and his partner are one of 10 couples who are plaintiffs in the Lambda lawsuit. Despite the UA's plan to do the right thing, he remains part of the lawsuit and was eager for Lambda to present the facts in court.

"We still believe we should receive equal pay for equal work," Humphrey said. "We are incredibly fortunate here at the UA in the leadership of our president and his cabinet. Still, it won't be the same thing."

Humphrey said it is difficult to guess which way the judge will lean, considering the lawsuit covers new legal ground. "Yet everyone is optimistic that the judge will see this is about equal pay for equal work."

Humphrey's spouse, Brett Klay, is a stay-at-home dad who takes care of the couple's two special-needs foster children. Last summer, Klay was diagnosed with a torn carotid artery—and their health insurance is more important to the family than ever.

"This is absolutely a human-rights issue. I feel personally that the legislation tries to institutionalize discrimination. That should not be part of government. Government should actually do the opposite to protect my family," Humphrey said. "I like living in Arizona, and I want to stay doing the work that I do with students at the UA. But I have to take care of my family first."

In response to the Legislature's actions, UA President Robert Shelton issued a memo on Sept. 17, 2009, making it clear that benefits for all employees are essential to the UA's efforts to recruit top academic and administrative employees.

"When coverage for domestic partners was announced last year, we celebrated the state's stance. HB 2013 challenges our values of equity and inclusion and also appears to exclude vital health insurance coverage for many disabled dependents," Shelton wrote. "Benefits parity is essential for a world-class university, and we are resolved to achieve it."

Humphrey was part of a UA domestic-partner coverage design and review team that worked with Allison Vaillancourt, the UA vice president of human resources, to develop a benefits package to replace the one previously provided by the state. The Weekly called Vaillancourt for comment, but she was on vacation.

In a memo that Vaillancourt issued in May, she wrote that benefits being developed included a medical plan underwritten by UnitedHealthcare, a vision plan underwritten by Avesis, and two dental plans: one underwritten by Total Dental Administrators, and the other by Delta Dental. The plan "will offer group medical, dental and vision insurance coverage to its benefits-eligible employees who wish to cover their domestic partners and their children."

The enrollment period is expected to begin in August, and UA employees have been told to go to the UA human resources website (www.hr.arizona.edu) for more information.

Humphrey says the process to develop the plan was unique.

"It reflects how people are valued at the UA," he said. "It was a really strong process that involved a lot of community members, but we don't know the final outcome of it. What we know is that the benefits for LGBT employees and their families are close, if not comparable, to the state benefits."

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