Benefits policy at Sinclair has yet to include domestic partners

Employees with same-sex partners do not enjoy the same privileges as their married colleagues at Sinclair Community College.
Twelve out of the 13 state universities in Ohio give employees the option to register their committed partners as dependents for health, dental and other benefits. Out of the 12 community colleges in North America that have been honored as Vanguard Learning Schools, Sinclair is one of only two that do not include domestic partners in their benefits package.
Miami University and Ohio University became the first state-supported Ohio universities to offer benefits to same-sex partners of employees in 2004. The move toward enacting the change at Miami began 13 years earlier with the formation of a three-person task force.
“The folks who were on that committee were leaders, they were powerful professors and respected faculty on campus bringing this forward as an important issue,” said Andy Zeisler, co-president of the Miami University LGBT Alumni Association. “It was a socially progressive thing to do…a commitment of the university to make it a welcoming place. It spoke volumes about how they look at their faculty and employees.”
Miami and Ohio University’s decision, followed later that year by policy changes at Cleveland State University and Youngstown State University, was made during a period of vigorous debate about LGBT rights in Ohio and around the country, including an Ohio constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex civil unions.
“But the precedent’s been set now, that’s all history,” said Paul Anderson, one of the members of the original Miami task force. “Sinclair can now do this without facing the kinds of questions and problems that Miami’s faced.”
Changes at Sinclair
Sinclair is proud of its commitment to equal treatment and non-discrimination, according to Gwen Jones, Sinclair’s Diversity Officer. “Sinclair has come a long way since its beginning,” she said.
Yet some faculty members say the school has been slow to adapt to the shifting social conventions of LGBT rights.
Until 2009, when Dr. Mary Gaier and the Diversity Committee led an audit to update the school’s non-discrimination policy, Sinclair had no policy to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In comparison, Miami started including sexual orientation in non-discrimination materials as far back as 1984.
There is no explicit explanation for the exclusion of domestic partners in the college’s current benefits policy, the idea simply hasn’t been “fully vetted to date,” said Mary Gaier, head of the Health Care Committee for faculty and staff and vice president of organizational development at Sinclair.
“I wouldn’t know any reasons,” she said, “but I would just say that it’s not necessarily what’s moving forward or what the Board is looking at right now.”
Like the recent change to the non-discrimination policy, a change to the benefits policy would require a decision by the Sinclair Board of Trustees. Gaier said that the request to bring the issue before the Board could come from several sources: the faculty, the faculty senate, the staff senate or simple emails and contact with the president’s cabinet members.
Karl Hess, the president of the Faculty Senate, said that a request from the Senate would have to go through Gaier’s Health Care Committee. According to Gaier, one person brought the issue before the group, but it did not move outside the committee.
“There were so many things that were going on with the health care committee and containing the cost of health care, etc., that we didn’t get back to it,” she said. Although the topic has been raised by at least one member of the Faculty Senate, Hess says that the issue has not been prominent among the faculty.
“This is something that we’re just beginning to talk about,” said Hess. “I think that the majority of the faculty haven’t thought about it a lot. I think we’re very much at the beginning of even thinking about it. A lot of people, I don’t think, have an opinion – it’s just not on their radar.”
Practical benefits
Proponents of partnership benefits argue that extending benefits to all committed employee partnerships, regardless of gender or legal recognition, is both beneficial to the institution and crucial for promoting a fair work environment.
“[The] argument is a practical one…to attract a certain caliber of employees,” said Deborah Badonsky, a professor in the Paralegal Department. “People say ‘if I have the choice to go to Sinclair or a college or university that has same-sex benefits and I have a same-sex partner, that would influence my choice.’”
Anderson said that before their 2004 policy change, Miami had been losing highly qualified faculty and staff because it didn’t have benefits for their partners.
“The message is also clear to students that Miami welcomes the LGBT community, so students can come to a university that clearly understands and has demonstrated its support for the faculty and staff,” he said.
Financial and political hurdles
Financial concerns are one reason that some institutions may be hesitant to offer benefits to partners, said Badonsky. “It’s easy for me as a faculty member to say ‘do the right thing,’ because I don’t need to figure out how we’re going to pay for it,” she said.
“Sometimes it is a concern about expense, how many additional lives would be covered,” said Carol Mangino, the assistant director for human resources at Lakeland Community College in Cleveland, whose faculty requested that same-sex partner benefits be included in their contract in 2008.
At Lakeland, the policy resulted in a less than 1 percent increase in the lives covered, which Mangino said was nearly negligible.
“It was a very smooth process,” she said. “Quite a few schools had already done it by then.”
Gaier said that Sinclair would have to fully investigate the financial impact of a new policy before any change could be considered.
“The legacy of Sinclair is about both respect for diversity and of careful financial stewardship and prudent decision making,” said Gaier.
It is also possible that Sinclair faces a political hurdle that some other schools avoided. Sinclair is supported by the levy, and it could be politically dangerous for the school to move on any potentially controversial issue that could affect voters’ decisions at the ballot box, said Badonsky.
“We live in a conservative environment,” she said. “My sense is that the faculty is fairly conservative and some students are conservative, so I think that’s maybe a concern.”
Commitment to diversity
“The discussion is no longer just about race. Diversity has become a more complex discussion than it used to be,” says Jones. “I think that today, in this day and age, this discussion is being had at many institutions. It’s a modern day, 21st century question.”
Jones pointed out that some of the diversity initiatives being instituted at Sinclair today were recommended by a committee nearly 10 years ago.
“Things take a long time, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Jones. “And that’s true at all colleges and universities, it just doesn’t happen as quickly as we’d like it to.”
Brite-Signal Alliance President Matthew Gutierrez said that he thinks that it is important that the decision to include all partners in benefits comes from the “top down,” so students, faculty and staff know that their administrators care about creating an inclusive work environment.
“Being told one thing as far as diversity and inclusion and all that, and then to have policies dictate another, it seems very hypocritical,” he said. “And if the administration is going to stay stagnant on it, then it is absolutely our responsibility to speak up for it. Sinclair Community College has a duty and obligation to their students, but they have a duty and obligation to the people they employ too.”
He said that he hopes that the dialogue about the issue will continue, and that it is something that the administration will seriously consider.
“I think the college is certainly open to knowing and understanding and protecting the rights of individuals,” said Gaier. “Could we do more? I don’t know, but let’s find out.”

It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone