June 06, 2020

UM System grants same-sex benefits > Union worked 5 years on issue

BANGOR — In 1990, Maggie Fournier’s female lover and partner of 18 years lost her job. As a practical measure, Fournier, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Southern Maine, tried to enroll her partner, Cheryl Ciechomski, under her health insurance plan. She was refused by the university system because she was not legally married.

Six years later, Fournier and other UMS faculty have won entitlement to the university’s health plan and other benefits for their same-sex partners because of a Sept. 30 decision by the system’s board of trustees.

On that day, after years of negotiation, the board voted to grant health insurance, bereavement leave, tuition waivers and access to campus facilities to lesbian or gay partners of staff and faculty members within the university system. The action came on a contract ratification vote and makes the University of Maine System the first public employer in Maine to offer domestic partnership benefits to qualified same-sex couples.

Some private colleges in Maine — Colby College in Waterville and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, for instance — offer benefits to same-sex partners of staff members. Private companies from UNUM to Maine branches of Levi Strauss and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream also offer benefits for same-sex partners of employees.

Benefits for same-sex partners is not a new trend. It started cropping up 10 years ago in companies and campuses nationwide, but Fournier said it required a considerable effort to educate University of Maine System leaders to its necessity.

“The board has chosen the moral high ground on this issue,” Fournier said in a telephone interview. She explained that the University of Maine System adopted a policy in 1987 stating it wouldn’t discriminate against people based on their sexual preference.

“To buy a separate policy for our partners is a financial hardship for many. For us, it was a matter of principle. I’m absolutely delighted the trustees have put teeth into their policy,” Fournier said.

The change in domestic partner benefits is expected to affect a small percentage of the campus staff, perhaps 13 to 30 people, according to Mary Bonauto, Massachusetts attorney and civil rights director for GLAD — Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. The New England-based organization, which focuses on impact litigation, helped Fournier in her quest for domestic-partner benefits.

The change did not come overnight. Faculty members at campuses statewide worked with their union on the domestic-partner benefits issue for five years.

After she was refused domestic-partner benefits, Fournier appealed the decision to her union. In 1991, a union arbitrator for AFUM — Associated Faculites of the University of Maine — determined Fournier and others could not be allowed benefits for same-sex partners unless the language was worked into the union contract.

A group of faculty and staff calling itself “Advocates for Equality in Family Benefits” took up the cause by circulating petitions and raising the issue at union meetings. Fournier became a symbol for the issue, galvanizing gay and straight supporters for the cause.

Fournier and Bonauto said the matter did not meet with much vocal opposition. Union leadership threw its support behind the issue in 1992, but it was not until 1995 that the university system agreed to set up a joint committee to study the matter. The joint committee issued a report in January 1996.

Citing the unavailability of marriage to same-sex couples and the university’s 1987 nondiscrimination policy, the committe recommended “that same-sex domestic partners of faculty be considered the equivalents of spouses for eligibility in employee benefit programs.”

With 1,200 members, AFUM is the largest union in the seven-campus university system. It is considered a “bellweather” union, Bonauto said, and probably will lead to same-sex benefits being allowed in other unions within the University of Maine System.

“The whole process has been one of education,” said Fournier, who also has a 10-year-old daughter.

“Now I can offer my partner of 24 years benefits she couldn’t get before.”

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