Wal-Mart joins ranks of employers offering benefits to same-sex partners

By: News services
August 27, 2013 Updated: August 27, 2013 at 3:15 pm

NEW YORK - Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest private employer, will extend its health care benefits to its U.S. workers' domestic partners, including those of the same sex, starting Jan. 1.

The nation's largest private employer said Tuesday that the changes were made so it could have a uniform policy for all 50 states at a time when some states have their own definitions of what constitutes domestic partnerships and civil unions.

Wal-Mart's decision comes at a time when more companies are offering benefits to same-sex spouses and domestic partners. According to a survey released Tuesday by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans in Brookfield, Wis., more than half of employers now offer some benefits to same-sex spouses and domestic partners. Almost one-quarter of them plan to extend benefits to all married same-sex couples, even if they live in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage,

The survey received responses from 915 people who work in human resources and benefits, and was done after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

The survey also found:

- More than 4 in 10 employers - 44.5 percent - offer benefits to unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners.

- An additional 1 in 10 employers - 10.5 percent - are now considering adding benefits for opposite-sex couples while 1 in 20 - 5.1 percent - are considering dropping benefits for them.

-Two-thirds of employers said that they needed further clarification and guidance on the ruling before making major changes to employee benefits and policies.

"The Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA is a step forward for married same-sex couples, but it poses a number of questions for workers and their employers providing spousal benefits," said Julie Stich, research director for the foundation, in a statement. "The decision impacts various types of employee benefits and retirement plans, and poses tax questions for both employers and employees."

Wal-Mart defines domestic partners as same-sex or opposite sex spouses, and unmarried partners who are not legally separated who have lived together for at least 12 months, are not married to anyone else, are in an exclusive relationship and plan to continue sharing a household indefinitely, says Randy Hargrove, a Wal-Mart spokesman.

"States have different definitions," Hargrove said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We are going to have our own definition that will apply to our associates."

The Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter has 1.3 million full-time and part-time U.S. workers. More than half of the workers participate in health care plans, the company says. About 1.1 million Wal-Mart workers and family members combined participate in Wal-Mart's health care plan.

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