BNSF backtracks on benefits for same-sex spouses

SEATTLE — The nation’s largest freight rail carriers announced Wednesday they will provide health care benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees, one day after legally married, gay engineers filed a federal lawsuit in Seattle.

Gus Melonas, a spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., read the statement from the National Railway Labor Conference to The Associated Press. The conference represents the railroad companies in dealings with labor groups, lawmakers and courts.

Same-sex spouses will be eligible for dependent health care coverage starting Jan. 1, the statement said.

“While this it is not a benefit required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, the railroads agreed with labor to provide the benefit in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples,” the conference said.

Two BNSF engineers in Washington state, one man and one woman, sued the company Tuesday over its refusal to provide benefits to their spouses. The lawsuit, which alleges violations of the federal Equal Pay Act, seeks class-action status on behalf of any other BNSF employees who may have been denied benefits for their same-sex spouses in a legally recognized marriage. It says the same-sex spouses have been denied benefits provided routinely to those of opposite sex.

A lawyer for the couples, Cleveland Stockmeyer, disagreed with the conference’s statement that benefits for same-sex spouses aren’t required by law or by collective bargaining. The company’s health plan describes eligible dependents as “your husband or wife,” without excluding same-sex spouses, he argued.

Stockmeyer said the railroads’ decision is a good first step but would only partially resolve the lawsuit. The couples still need to be compensated for the financial and emotional drain of spending months without the benefits as they fought BNSF to have the spouses added, he said.

“It shouldn’t take a federal lawsuit to make a national company do the right thing,” Stockmeyer said. “If they tell me or my clients the benefits will be offered, and if they actually do it, we’ll believe it. But they still need to account for denying them benefits for one year.”

The lawsuit against BNSF, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleged the company refused to add the spouses of locomotive engineer Michael Hall, of Pierce County, and conductor Amie Garrand, of Vancouver, to their plans.

Hall and Garrand both said they made repeated requests over several months, only to be met with denials and, in Hall’s case, an intimidating phone call from a supervisor.

The lawsuit, which alleged violations of the federal Equal Pay Act, sought class-action status on behalf of any other BNSF employees who may have been denied benefits for their same-sex spouses in a legally recognized marriage. It said the same-sex spouses had been denied benefits provided routinely to those of opposite sex.

“I was told many times by BNSF, ‘marriage is one man, one woman,’” Hall said. “I told them, ‘Not in Washington state.’ They still told me no.”

Hall, 30, has worked for BNSF for three years. He drives mile-long freight trains from the Seattle area to Pasco, Vancouver, and back to Seattle. His husband, Elijah Hall Uber, has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and going without health coverage for him has deprived the couple of $2,400 per month in coverage of medication costs, the lawsuit said. Elijah Hall Uber has found coverage through Washington state, but that will run out soon.

“I take medications I have to take every day just to survive,” Hall Uber said. “I don’t know if I’m going to have insurance from one month to the next.”

Amie Garrand, a BNSF employee for 12 years, drives trains in southwest Washington. She lost out on coverage for her wife, Carol Garrand, who gave birth to a son this year, the lawsuit said.

The rail conference represents the largest freight carriers in the nation — including units of Norfolk Southern Corp., Union Pacific Corp., CSX Corp. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s BNSF — as well as some smaller railroads. Its statement, reported earlier Wednesday by the Omaha World Herald’s Omaha.com, said employees would receive more information about the same-sex spouse health benefits in the coming weeks.

The industry spends more than $2 billion a year on health care benefits for rail employees, the statement said.

Follow Gene Johnson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle.

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