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Though Massachusetts is slated to begin marrying same-sex couples this month, the law on gay and lesbian unions is in flux elsewhere in the United States. And that’s got in-house attorneys unsure whether they need to update their companies’ employment policies anytime soon. “I’ve been getting calls from many lawyers wanting to know how to advise their clients on this,” says Sherwin Simmons, a corporate benefits attorney with Steel Hector & Davis in Miami. “At the board level, you’ve got to get [directors] to start thinking about these developments now,” Simmons adds. “It’s not something that [companies] can just sit by and say, ‘We’ll deal with it when the time comes,’ because the time is here.” Companies should start studying the expansion of benefits to their gay and lesbian employees, Simmons says. However, he believes most businesses can hold off on making any changes for now, because “this is going to take all kinds of twists and turns.” Many companies already extend some benefits to their gay and lesbian workers. Since the eighties, nearly 6,000 U.S. employers have provided medical coverage and other benefits to about 125,000 employees with same-sex domestic partners, according to the Human Rights Campaign. HRC, a gay rights group based in Washington, D.C., says that costs have risen about 1-2 percent at businesses making the change. While full marriage comes with considerably more privileges than domestic partnership, same-sex couples won’t be able to wed in most places anytime soon. HRC reports that 36 states have passed laws barring same-sex marriage, and another three have added bans to their constitutions. President George Bush has also proposed a federal constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. San Francisco officials complicated the picture this spring, though, when they started marrying same-sex couples. A handful of counties in New Mexico, Oregon, and New York State followed suit. Judges stopped the weddings in each locality except Portland, Oregon. Still, ongoing litigation means that each of these states could potentially legalize same-sex marriages down the line. That would lead to a situation in which gay and lesbian couples could legally wed in some states, but not others. As a result, Simmons says, “employers may have to deal at the state and local levels with different definitions of ‘spouse’ and perhaps ‘issue’ and ‘children’ for state and private welfare benefit plans” [ "Something Old, Something New," February]. The only place where the law is clear is Massachusetts � at least for the next two years. Last fall the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state’s constitution allows same-sex couples to marry, and ordered Massachusetts to comply by May 17. In March state lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment that would bar same-sex couples from getting hitched, but would allow them to form civil unions with many of the benefits of marriage. However, because the amendment must be cleared by two consecutive legislatures, Massachusetts voters won’t be able to consider it until November 2006 at the earliest. In the interim, the Supreme Judicial Court decision explicitly states that Massachusetts employers must offer the same benefits to their homosexual married employees that they give to their heterosexual married workers. That includes health and life insurance coverage, medical and family leave, prepaid legal plans, and relocation expenses. Some Massachusetts businesses extended a few benefits to their gay and lesbian workers even before the Supreme Judicial Court ruling. Iron Mountain Incorporated, a Boston-based records storage company, did so because it has operations in California, says GC Garry Watzke. He explains that a few California municipalities require companies to grant domestic partner benefits, which starting next year must also be granted to all same-sex couples who register with the state as domestic partners. Animation Technologies, a Boston-based multimedia company, recently expanded health insurance coverage to same-sex partners of its employees, says GC Karen Abbott. She adds that she doesn’t expect the company’s cost to be significant; so far, only one of its 50 workers has applied for the benefit. As goes Massachusetts, so goes the rest of the nation? Perhaps. Thomas Greene at Boston’s Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo says that the Bay State’s law may “force the issue to the forefront” elsewhere. Greene, a corporate benefits associate, explains, “Massachusetts companies with affiliates in other states will probably make [benefits policy] uniform at other locations.”

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