Northwest College professor asking for same-sex health insurance benefits

2012-01-30T16:45:00Z 2012-01-31T00:15:45Z Northwest College professor asking for same-sex health insurance benefitsBy MARTIN KIDSTON mkidston@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

POWELL, Wyo. — An English professor is asking Northwest College to offer health insurance benefits to same-sex partners of school employees, saying it would make the college more competitive in hiring and would set an example of equality for its students.

Rachel Hanan, an assistant professor in her first year at Northwest, submitted a letter to the President’s Advisory Council last week, asking the committee to explore the possibility of extending benefits to domestic partners of employees.

“I’d like to provide for my family just like other employees can provide for theirs,” Hanan said Monday. “Offering benefits to same-sex partners won’t increase the college’s financial burden, and it’s necessary for the college to remain competitive when hiring.”

Hanan said that while the college currently offers benefits to spouses of employees, it does not offer the same benefits to those employees who are engaged in committed domestic partnerships.

She said the oversight runs contrary to the school’s faculty handbook, which says the college will provide “equal opportunities for jobs and advancement at every level without regard for age, race, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, or veteran status.”

“I did my research before I moved here, and I made the choice to move here because Northwest was the kind of school I wanted to work at,” said Hanan, who moved recently from the University of Oregon. “We don’t want to risk losing or not attracting good employees because we can’t offer competitive benefits.”

Northwest College President Paul Prestwich said the two-year school does not typically compete for the same candidates as the region’s research universities and private corporations.

He said recruitment won’t likely play a factor when looking at the issue. He has asked his advisory committee to begin exploring same-sex benefits and what it might cost the college to offer them.

“We’re in the early phase of getting more information on what the financial and political implications might be,” Prestwich said. “We’d be the only two-year college in Wyoming to offer same-sex benefits, so we’d be out there on our own. But we’re looking at it from every standpoint.”

Chad Baldwin, director of institutional communications at the University of Wyoming, said the Laramie-based university began looking into same-sex benefits five years ago.

When comparing benefits offered at similar schools elsewhere in the country, Baldwin said, the university found itself at a disadvantage by not extending benefits to same-sex partners of school employees.

“It began as a general recommendation by those involved in recruiting faculty that we were at a disadvantage in that recruiting by not offering this,” Baldwin said. “To be competitive, it was something we needed to look at.”

According to the University of Wyoming, half the corporations listed on the Fortune 500 offer domestic partner benefits, as do the Montana, Colorado and Arizona university systems. The universities of Utah, New Mexico and Michigan, among others, also offer the benefits.

The benefits for same-sex couples at the University of Wyoming became available late last year. The university defines a domestic partnership as a couple who are not married but are engaged in a committed relationship, regardless of gender.

“When we seek to hire first-rate faculty and top-level administrators, we compete with other universities, both public and private, as well as private industry,” Baldwin said. “Domestic partner health insurance benefits are now so common in research universities and in the knowledge-based industrial sector that not offering these benefits puts the university at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting.”

Prestwich said the school cannot use the Wyoming state benefit package to provide same-sex health insurance. If the school did offer the benefits, he said, it would have to come from the school’s budget.

But Hanan believes the college has already committed to pay an allowance toward health benefits for spouses of school employees.

She said the funds are currently available under the assumption that an employee with a spouse may be hired.

“Should NWC offer benefits for same-sex partners, it would not spend any more money than it already has committed to spend,” Hanan said. “The money is already allocated and it shouldn’t cost the school any additional funding.”

Since approaching the school’s advisory council, Hanan said, she has received support from other faculty members and the student body.

“The President’s Advisory Council is working up a budget to see if such benefits are financially possible,” Hanan said. “It will then make a decision whether to recommend the change to the Board of Trustees, who will ultimately vote on the matter.”

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