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Schafer: For employers, marriage issue was decided a long time ago

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER
  • Star Tribune
  • October 13, 2012 - 9:06 PM

Minnesotans may be evenly divided on the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, but in the corporate community, the issue is far more settled.

You can tell by the actions of the companies themselves.

"Nearly 300 businesses, including the majority of the [local Fortune 500 companies], grant partner health benefits," said Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the board chair of hospitality and travel company Carlson. "Now, that is not one of those mandates we keep hearing about. That was a business choice."

It's not a complicated business issue, as any company that wants to succeed in the marketplace will embrace as many potential customers as it can and draw its talent from as large a pool as possible. You could argue that granting full health benefits isn't the same as supporting same-sex marriage, but regardless, the trend in corporate Minnesota is strongly in the direction of inclusion.

Medtronic began offering health plan coverage to domestic partners of employees back in May 1999. It also is one of more than a dozen large Twin Cities private employers that scored 100 on the Corporate Equality Index 2012, prepared by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based gay rights advocacy group.

In looking at the HRC's criteria, with a layman's knowledge of human resources practices, it doesn't seem particularly easy to score 100. What kept Ecolab and Land O'Lakes at 90, for example, was not providing health benefits for what the HRC described as "medically necessary care of transgender individuals."

Medtronic has done so, and its practices continue to evolve. Consider this situation: For a Medtronic employee in a domestic partnership, health coverage for the partner is not the tax-free benefit it would be if they were legally married. For gay couples, the value of that benefit to the domestic partner is treated like ordinary cash pay and is fully taxable.

On Thursday, Medtronic announced internally that it would provide "tax assistance" to compensate employees in a same-sex relationship who have a tax liability that legally married employees do not.

Ken Fairchild heads global compensation and benefits for Medtronic, and he said "it's important if you are discussing the journey that Medtronic has been on, to put this [tax assistance] in the context of many other things we have done... to build an inclusive work environment."

Medtronic's direct competitor, St. Jude Medical, is one of those handful of large companies in the state that has formally announced opposition to the marriage amendment, and a St. Jude spokesman said that the Little Canada-based company began offering domestic partner benefits in 2005, and "continues to focus on developing and promoting company policies that ensure workplace equality."

Medtronic has been silent on the marriage amendment, but there is clearly little difference in how leadership of these two medical device makers seek to enable lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) folks to feel fully part of their workforces.

In conversations this week with executives from several of the organizations that scored 100 on the HRC survey, the marriage amendment was not the focus. It was about why an employer developed a set of policies to foster a broadly diverse workforce that included LGBT employees.

At times the questioning felt awkward, much like asking a shopkeeper about her policy of scooping the snow off the sidewalk after a storm. Yes, that obvious.

Executives placed health benefits for LGBT employees into the context of an overall diversity strategy. They described training and the formation of voluntary employee groups that discuss issues of interest to members, be they employees under 30, women, immigrants, or LGBT employees.

At the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney, which like Medtronic is planning to implement tax assistance on domestic partnership health benefits, partner Michael McCormick described how meeting client expectations has led to greater workplace diversity.

He said the firm's corporate clients and prospects routinely put diversity requirements into formal requests for proposal.

Ameriprise Financial's Rafael Gutierrez, vice president of diversity and inclusion, explained how Ameriprise was one of the first in financial services to focus on LGBT families. Its dual client analysis is a comprehensive financial plan for gay couples that can't be legally married but nevertheless have formed one household.

"Our goal is to ... attract more clients of different backgrounds and different ways of thinking," Gutierrez said. "And to do that it's important to attract and retain people of different backgrounds and different ways of thinking."

Unlike some of the other Minnesota companies on the HRC Corporate Equality Index list that scored 100, RBC Wealth Management-U.S. in Minneapolis has made scoring 100 a corporate goal.

CEO John Taft called the survey's criteria the "gold standard" for comprehensive policies that attract and retain LGBT employees. His firm got its first 100 rating in 2009.

Taft said he can agree that Minnesota's corporate leadership has broadly accepted the business case for fostering diversity and making comprehensive efforts to treat all employees the same. But he has not stopped at implementing those policies inside RBC, joining with Nelson as a business leader advocating the "no" side of the gay marriage amendment question.

Taft said helping employees deal with the tax on domestic partner health benefits is "an emerging issue" and an example of ways state and federal laws treat gay couples differently than legally married couples. It would be a lot easier, including managing the benefits program of a firm like RBC, if gay couples could legally marry.

Taft said he sticks to business in his advocacy efforts. "I tell people, 'If you have an opposing argument on the business case, let's hear it.' I haven't heard that in a year and a half.

"The business case is compelling."

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302

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