In early December, the country’s largest rail carriers announced they would begin providing health benefits to their employees and their same-sex spouses starting January 1. This
announcement was released even though the lawsuit, which was filed just one day earlier in Seattle’s District Court, is still ongoing. In the lawsuit, two employees of BNSF Railway Co.
claim that despite Washington’s legalization of same-sex marriage over a year ago their spouses and others in same-sex marriages have been denied health benefits repeatedly for the past eleven
months and suffered financially because of the denials.
The Railway Companies Position
The National Railway Labor Conference represents the major rail carriers in matters relating to labor groups and their collective bargaining. According to the Conference, they will now provide
the benefits even though they do not believe they are required to by law or through the collective bargaining agreement. This decision is apparently a quick one and a turnaround for the
In an initial comment from BNSF, the railway said it already provides health benefits to same-sex spouses of its salaried workers, but not for those under collective bargaining
agreements. It did not feel it had the right to change the existing terms of the agreements unilaterally. However, some close reading of the health care terms in the agreement allowed them
to change their stance. The language of the dependent health care portion of the collective bargaining agreement simply addresses husbands and wives of employees, not the gender of the
employee in relation to his or her spouse. So technically, the agreement has not been altered and there does not appear to be any reason to deny legally recognized same-sex spouses when
offering health benefits.
The Lawsuit Continues
Even though the major railway companies have agreed to offer health benefits to same-sex spouses, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking more than just future benefits. Since same-sex
marriages have been legal and recognized in Washington for the last year, they feel that they are entitled to damages for the denial of benefits during that time. According to their claim, they were denied because of the company’s policy that “marriage is between one man and one woman.” Their argument is that the railway companies and BNSF in particular, should not be
allowed to benefit from the past years discriminatory denials. Both the lawsuit and the railway union representative believe that even though the union and companies were between contract
negotiations, a time when agreements generally cannot be altered, the current agreements could have and should have been updated to reflect the change in state law when it happened. Since the
lawsuit was just recently filed, they will have to wait to see if the court agrees.
If you feel you have been discriminated against in your employment because of your age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or another protected ground, contact an experience employment law
attorney for help.