Equal Benefits Bill has widespread support, but opposition is expected
The nation’s culture war over gay rights may erupt in New York City when the City Council holds its first hearing November 13 on a bill that would require contractors who do business with the city to treat their employees’ domestic partners the same as spouses.
But in the weeks leading up to the hearing and an expected vote before the end of the year, the bill’s opponents are keeping their powder dry while supporters strategize how to gain passage.
The Pride Agenda has an extensive legislative analysis about the EBB on its website at prideagenda.org and led a successful effort to form a veto-proof majority of Council sponsors. The group is also planning to hit the streets on November 2 to collect signatures in support of the bill.
The bill needs 26 votes, has 36 sponsors and at least several additional supporters, and needs 37 votes to overcome a potential mayoral veto.
Asked about the silence so far from opponents of the bill, Quinn said, “Now that the date for the hearing is out there, I expect to see it.”
She is calling for supporters to attend the committee hearing on November 13, especially those whose companies provide domestic partner benefits “to make the point that [the EBB] is good for business.”
Quinn noted that Merrill Lynch, a company that has implemented domestic partner benefits, has endorsed the bill.
Some of the city’s biggest contractors are unaware of the bill and its consequences. First Health Services Corporation, of Glen Allen, Virginia, the city’s largest contractor, does $815 million in city business. Erin Gardner, a company spokesperson for First Health of Illinois, the parent company, said that while the company forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation, it does not currently provide domestic partner benefits. She noted that the company has only 14 employees in New York City, but the bill would require the company to provide equal benefits to all those who provide services under the contract.
The bill is similar to legislation passed in San Francisco in 1997 requiring that city’s contractors to provide equal benefits. At the time, certain religious groups lobbied against the measure, but following its passage even the Catholic archdiocese found a way to comply with the law.
New York’s conservative archdiocese, often at the forefront against lesbian and gay rights, is a major city contractor through its subsidiary, Catholic Charities. Church officials have yet to weigh in on the bill and did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The Salvation Army, another large city contractor, forfeited its San Francisco contracts rather than comply with that city’s benefits law. When the Western Region of the Army tried to modify its stance last year to regain the contracts, the national headquarters of the organization overruled it. A New York source for the Salvation Army said that “the likelihood is that the Salvation Army of Greater New York would take the national position,” but the group has not formally taken a position on the bill.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposes the Equal Benefits Bill, saying that the city’s only obligation in hiring contractors is to get the best service at the best price, even if it means using a discriminatory provider.
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Pride Agenda, said that although he has not spoken directly with the mayor, he “does not seem to have changed his mind” about the bill.
Van Capelle’s predecessor, Matt Foreman, who once called the EBB the most important piece of LGBT legislation in New York, noted that he and Van Capelle met with Vinnie Lapadula in Bloomberg’s office after Van Capelle was named executive director. Foreman told Lapadula “there was no hard data that a lot of businesses would stop bidding on projects” if the EBB was enacted.
“We also noted that monitoring compliance would not be difficult,” Foreman said.
Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) has often said he supports the bill in principle. In 2002, he promised to sponsor the legislation prior to his caucus selecting him as speaker, but Miller typically does not sponsors bills, citing a Speakership tradition of neutrality. One of the bill’s sponsors, James Davis (D-Brooklyn), was assassinated in City Hall in July. His successor will be elected on November 4, with Letitia James of the Working Families Party, who has pledged to sponsor the bill, favored by most gay and progressive groups.
Religiously affiliated contractors will most likely form the staunchest opposition group to the EBB. During his mayoral campaign, Bloomberg had supported the legislation, but also spoke in favor of a “religious carve out,” an exemption unacceptable to Quinn.
“My goal is to get the bill passed in as comprehensive a way as possible that avoids feeding into the idea that religious groups have the right to be treated differently,” she said.
Any change in the bill’s language would have to be approved by its coalition sponsors, Quinn said.
No specific religious exemption has been put forth as yet, but it appears that amendments might be introduced to accomplish that. Alex Navarro, a spokesperson for Councilmember Bill DiBlasio (D-Brooklyn), noted that “there are other models that can accomplish this extremely important goal,” but that DiBlasio, whose district includes a large Hasidic community, but also Park Slope, is pledged to vote for it as currently drafted.
One possible modification may be to allow contractors to provide benefits for any one other household member, rather than specifying a domestic partner. That approach is what mollified the Catholic Church in San Francisco.
Some contractors who do not yet provide domestic partner benefits nevertheless say they welcome passage of the legislation. Martin Oppenheimer, chair of the City Center of Music and Drama that runs the New York City Ballet and Opera, said, “It will motivate us to [provide coverage] and our insurance company to cover it. We’re sensitive to the problem and employ people who would benefit from it.”
The LGBT Community Center now provides its employees who have domestic partners with the cash equivalent of a spousal benefit. The Center’s insurance carrier does not offer domestic partner benefits, nor does state law require it. Richard Burns, executive director of the Center, said that even though his institution already complies with the bill’s requirements, passage “will make our life easier,” since it would motivate more insurance companies to offer domestic partner benefits.
Laura Jones, an administrator at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said that the non-profit has offered domestic partner benefits since 2001, but that “most insurance companies will only offer them to groups of 100 or more. This may push more companies to provide it.”