August 31, 2014

Deal reached on same-sex couple dependent benefits

healthcarenews2Rail labor organizations and rail management through the National Carriers Conference Committee have reached an accord to extend medical, dental and vision benefits to same-sex couple spouses, effective Jan. 1, 2014.

The plans affected are the National Railway Carriers/UTU Health and Welfare Plan, the Railroad Employees National Health and Welfare Plan, the Early Retirement Health and Welfare Plan, the Railroad Employees’ National Dental Plan and the Railroad Employees National Vision Plan.

The NCCC states that there is no requirement under applicable law or under the current collective bargaining agreement to provide this coverage, but the change was agreed upon based on recent changes to federal law allowing same-sex couples to access federal tax benefits provided to other married couples.

Railroads participating in the aforementioned health care plans will be announcing these changes on their company websites and will notify employees in the near future by mail.

The announcement comes one day after a lawsuit was filed Dec. 3 in U.S. District Court in Seattle that said same-sex spouses were routinely denied medical coverage. The employees filing the suit worked for BNSF Railway.

SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich said the parties had recently concluded the discussions to extend benefits to same sex married couples, and formal announcement was on hold pending the resolution of final details. That announcement was moved up, said Previsich, to inform affected members and avoid unnecessary litigation on the matter.

The Seattle lawsuit was filed by two engineers – one man and one woman – and their same-sex spouses. It says BNSF had a “stated policy” that “one man and one woman” is what constitutes marriage. “BNSF does not get to judge what marriage is,” the suit said.

BNSF, which is owned by Omaha’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said the matter was properly handled through the National Railway Labor Conference, which could have handled it either through collective bargaining or, as it did, via the governing committee.

“This was the correct way to deal with the issue, as our prior statement indicated,” 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 in same-sex unions, Forsberg said, are eligible for health care coverage if they were married in a state where such marriages are legal. Such unions are not legal in Nebraska, where BNSF employs about 5,000 people.