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Topics In the News
In Response to Suit, Rail Companies Extend Benefits
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/05/13
Last updated on: 12/05/13
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One day after a suit against Washington-based BNSF Railway was filed by two employees who were denied health benefits for their same-sex spouses, on December 4, 2012, the rail company coalition that bargains with 13 labor unions announced that they would begin offering the benefits effective January 1, 2014. The National Railway Labor Conference said in a statement, "The nation's largest freight carriers will provide dependent health care coverage to eligible same-sex spouses of covered railroad employees."

As Gene Johnson reported for the Associated Press on December 3, 2013, locomotive engineer Michael Hall and conductor Amie Garrand filed suit in U.S. District Court in Seattle alleging that BSNF Railway repeatedly denied health benefits for their same-sex spouses even though voters in Washington state legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.

The company, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, responded through a spokesperson that it offered benefits to the same-sex spouses of salaried employees, but could not do so to those covered by collective bargaining agreements.

"In terms of employees covered by collective bargaining agreements, BNSF does not have the ability to unilaterally expand coverage that was negotiated through multi-employer collective bargaining with rail labor organizations," the spokesman said. He added, "Such discussions have been ongoing with the various representatives of the parties involved."

Hall and Garrand made repeated efforts over several months to secure coverage for their spouses, but were repeatedly denied despite the fact that the company's health plan says that husbands and wives of covered employees are dependents eligible for coverage. It does not specify that those husbands and wives must be the opposite sex of the employee.

"BNSF has no business overriding the vote we had here to make same sex marriage legal," Cleveland Stockmeyer, a lawyer for the couples, said in a news release. "Who are they to judge? BNSF should stick to running railroads and stop telling gays or lesbian couples who are legally married that they are not."

The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Equal Pay Act and seeks class-action status on behalf of any other BNSF employees who may have been denied benefits for their same-sex spouses in a legally recognized marriage.

However, the suit will likely not go to trial. Within hours of the filing of the lawsuit, the railway coalition announced that not only BNSF but all other members of the coalition of rail companies will provide medical coverage and other spousal benefits to same-sex spouses beginning on January 1. Hence, the filing of the suit has yielded even more than the plaintiffs demanded.

As Russell Hubbard reported in the Omaha World-Herald, the National Railway Labor Conference said that "While this is not a benefit required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, the railroads agreed with labor to provide this benefit in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access the same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples."

BNSF issued a statement saying that the matter was properly handled through the National Railway Labor Conference, which could have tackled it either through collective bargaining or as it did, via the governing committee.

"This was the correct way to deal with the issue," said Steve Forsberg, BNSF's director of external relations. "Changes to the plan must come through the collective bargaining process or through the plan's governing committee because the agreement involves multiple employers and multiple unions."

Spouses of salaried employees (as opposed to union members) in same-sex unions, Forsberg said, are already eligible for health care coverage if they were married in a state where such marriages are legal.

The video below, from Seattle's King 5 TV, reports on the lawsuit filed by Michael Hall and Amie Garrand.

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