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IBM Extends Health Benefits to Partners of Homosexual Employees

EVAN RAMSTADSeptember 19, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ IBM on Thursday became the nation’s largest company to extend health and other benefits to the domestic partners of its gay and lesbian employees.

Gay and lesbian activists applauded the decision and said they hoped it would encourage other companies to do the same.

Because it is so large and diverse, International Business Machines Corp. is viewed by many as a bellwether of American business practices. Its new policy covers dental, vision and general health benefits, starting on Jan. 1.

``This is a magnificent step forward in terms of Corporate America recognizing the value of gay and lesbian employees,″ said Elizabeth Birch, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian political organization.

IBM employs about 225,000 people worldwide and 110,000 in the United States. Employees learned of the change in a memo that described the company’s 1997 benefits program. Beginning next year, IBM will also extend benefits to children under the custodial care of an employee.

It joins nearly 470 other large corporations, governments and universities in the United States to provide the same benefits to same-sex couples that it does to married couples. That’s up from 250 a year ago, according to Common Ground, a Natick, Mass., research firm.

High-tech companies generally have led others in the extension of benefits to same-sex couples. Lotus Development Corp., which IBM acquired last year, took the step in 1990 and was among the first to do so.

In recent months, several other household names, including Walt Disney Co. and American Express Co. have also extended health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees.

``Having a company like IBM on board is going to shake a lot more of them out of the trees,″ said Liz Winfield, co-founder of Common Ground.

Political and religious conservatives have criticized such companies. Leaders of Southern Baptist churches have asked the denomination’s 16 million members to boycott Disney, in part because of its recent benefits extension to same-sex couples.

``What we really focused on in our discussion was our commitment to nondiscrimination,″ said Jill Kanin-Lovers, vice president of human resources for IBM’s U.S. divisions. ``We have a longstanding policy of treating employees equitably and fairly. That was how we shaped our decision-making.″

IBM in 1974 was the first large company to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination hiring policy.

To qualify for the new benefits, IBM will require its employees to sign affidavits that they are financially and emotionally interdependent with their domestic partners. Other companies have a similar requirement and such documents have become common in same-sex partnerships.

IBM did not extend benefits to domestic partners of the opposite sex who are not married. The company, like others, determined that such couples have a right to take advantage of how marriage laws apply to employment benefits while couples of the same sex do not.

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