Departments work to reform benefits for GLBT partners

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Advocates of equal benefits for GLBT faculty and staff won two victories this semester, as the UT Human Resource Services department and the Division of Housing and Food Service are each reviewing policies in an effort to increase access for GLBT employees and their partners.

The Office of Legal Affairs is considering changes to the University’s emergency leave policies, which currently limit bereavement, sick and parental leave to employees with heterosexual spouses. Human resources is looking to expand the reach of leave benefits, said Human Resource Services associate vice president Julien Carter.

“These programs are safety net programs to support employees with family problems, and that shouldn’t stop with a marriage certificate,” Carter said. “These safety net programs need to be expanded to cover modern definitions of what a family is. It comes down to issues of fairness and equity.”

In addition, DHFS administrators are changing their regulations to allow hall coordinators, who oversee all employees and activities of campus residence halls, to have any additional person as a roommate, including a same-sex partner. DHFS executive director Floyd Hoelting said the division talked about changing this policy when he started at the University 15 years ago, and he is excited to see the new policy coming to fruition.

“We want to make it more inclusive so everyone benefits,” Hoelting said. “A live-in staff person has a tough job — the residence hall is their home, it’s their office, they’re on call all the time. Other than a background check for anyone that lives here, we shouldn’t be telling them what kind of guest they can have.”

The changes address what many GLBT employees and gay rights supporters call soft benefits — policy changes the University can make internally without going through the Board of Regents or the state Legislature. UT President William Powers Jr. created a task force this fall to help plan long-term goals to address other soft benefits, GLBT faculty needs and competitive insurance benefits, which would allow UT employees to provide insurance to a same-sex partner — rather than just a spouse.

The task force includes Marc Musick, an associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Lindsey Schell, a member of the Pride and Equity Faculty and Staff Association; and Student Government President Scott Parks, who is gay. They said that in addition to the two policy changes underway, they hope to work for increased access for transgender students as well as competitive insurance benefits, also called domestic partner benefits.

“We’ve received a lot of support from other organizations, like staff and faculty council and Student Government,” Schell said. “There is a clear and obvious statement from the campus community that these are policies we would like to see move forward, that they are in line with the campus attitude and the expectations for what UT should offer its employees.”

Schell and Parks both said the support of Powers and other administrators and the creation of the task force gives traction to ideas that UT community members have discussed for many years.

“Since the founding of this task force, there has been a lot more institutional energy in getting these things moving,” Parks said. “It’s been great having the president’s office and these other people helping us.”