June 30, 2010
Google to Add Pay to Cover a Tax for Same-Sex Benefits
By TARA SIEGEL BERNARD
Working for a company as rich as Google comes with an incredible number of fringe benefits: the free food, the free laundry, the doctor on duty at company headquarters and the impressive five months of maternity leave with full pay and benefits, to mention a few.
So it is not entirely surprising that the company is about to introduce another set of benefits that pushes the envelope — this time, geared toward its gay and lesbian workers.
On Thursday, Google is going to begin covering a cost that gay and lesbian employees must pay when their partners receive domestic partner health benefits, largely to compensate them for an extra tax that heterosexual married couples do not pay. The increase will be retroactive to the beginning of the year.
“It’s a fairly cutting edge thing to do,” said Todd A. Solomon, a partner in the employee benefits department of McDermott Will & Emery, a law firm in Chicago, and author of “Domestic Partner Benefits: An Employer’s Guide.”
Google is not the first company to make up for the extra tax. At least a few large employers already do. But benefits experts say Google’s move could inspire its Silicon Valley competitors to follow suit, because they compete for the same talent.
Under federal law, employer-provided health benefits for domestic partners are counted as taxable income, if the partner is not considered a dependent. The tax owed is based on the value of the partner’s coverage paid by the employer.
On average, employees with domestic partners will pay about $1,069 more a year in taxes than a married employee with the same coverage, according to a 2007 report by M. V. Lee Badgett, director of the Williams Institute, a research group that studies sexual orientation policy issues.
So Google is essentially going to cover those costs, putting same-sex couples on an even footing with heterosexual employees whose spouses and families receive health benefits.
The company began to look at the disparity after a gay employee pointed it out, said Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president for people operations (also known as human resources). Google, by the way, says its benefits team seriously considers any suggestions on how to expand its coverage.
“We said, ‘You’re right, that doesn’t seem fair,’ so we looked into it,” Mr. Bock said. “From that initial suggestion, we said, let’s take a look at all the benefits we offer and see if we are being truly fair across the board.” As a result, the company also decided to make a few other changes that would help gay employees, including eliminating a one-year waiting period before qualifying for infertility benefits and including domestic partners in its family leave policy — going beyond the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks’ leave in a one-year period to recover from a medical condition or to care for a relative.
The extra compensation to cover the domestic partner tax will apply only to same-sex domestic partners, Mr. Bock said, because heterosexual couples can avoid the added tax by marrying. (Same-sex couples can make their unions official in several states, but their relationship will not be federally recognized.)
The additional pay will also cover the dependents of the employee’s domestic partner. The changes will be retroactive to Jan. 1, and will apply only to workers in the United States.
It is hard to say how many of Google’s 20,600 employees will be affected by the changes, but the company’s internal gay and lesbian group — they call themselves Gayglers — has about 700 members (though some members may simply support their gay and lesbian co-workers).
So what’s the cost of Google’s largess? Mr. Bock declined to provide details but said the decision was less about money and more about equalizing benefits. “If you were to add it all up, it’s not like we are talking hundreds of thousands per employee,” he said. “It will cost some money, but it was more about doing the right thing.”
The Kaiser Family Foundation says that 36 percent of large companies that offer health benefits provide coverage for same-sex domestic partners, and more than half of Fortune 500 companies provide domestic partner coverage — but few pay the extra costs of that coverage.
In California, even more companies may provide coverage because the state requires insurance products issued there to be extended to registered domestic partners.
Still, Google isn’t the first company to “gross up” their employees’ pay, as raises to cover taxes are known. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a handful of other organizations, including Cisco, Kimpton Hotels and the Gates Foundation, do so as well. Benefits experts said a few other companies provided the extra compensation, though it still amounted to a relatively small number.
But given the competitive nature of the benefits culture in Silicon Valley, where companies often offer extra perks to attract top employees, Google’s decision could lead to policy reviews, experts said.
“It could have a ripple effect, prompting other employers, and particularly employers in the same industry, to take a look at their own benefits package and see whether it would be appropriate to extend those benefits,” said Kathleen Murray, principal in the health and benefits consulting business in San Francisco for Mercer, the consulting firm. “When you have a high-profile company doing anything, that tends to get into the mind of the culture, and it can have a more diffuse effect.”
The company’s announcement came on the heels of a decision by the Labor Department to permit employees who are acting as parents to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a child, even if there are no legal or biological ties. But Google’s move would allow employees to care for a partner, too.
Congress has tried to address the fact that same-sex couples pay more for domestic partner health coverage. The health care overhaul legislation passed by the House last November included language that would have eliminated the tax on employer-provided coverage. But the provision did not make it into the final legislation signed by President Obama in March.
Google “has decided it’s in their best interest to treat employees with same-sex partners fairly,” said Daryl Herrschaft, who oversees the Workplace Project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, “and that includes picking up the slack when federal law doesn’t recognize the diversity of today’s work force.”