OMAHA, NE – Omaha’s police union has launched a formal challenge to the city’s decision not to provide health care benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees.
In a grievance filed Thursday, union President John Wells said the city is basing its argument on a definition of “spouse” that is too narrow — and one that was changed after the union contract had already been approved.
He argues that any decisions about benefits should be based on an earlier definition, which does not exclude couples who were legally married in states that allow same-sex marriages.
The union’s move followed a Wednesday announcement from Mayor Jean Stothert. As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, Omaha would begin providing pension and flexible spending benefits to same-sex spouses, the mayor said.
But after police union members pressed for additional details, Stothert said the city would not offer health and dental benefits to same-sex spouses unless unions bargained for them in labor negotiations.
Thursday, the mayor pointed to an explanation of benefits from Coventry, the city’s current health plan administrator: “The term ‘spouse’ shall not include partners of the same sex who were legally married under the laws of the state in which they were married.”
Stothert said she doesn’t believe she could overrule that language on her own.
“I think if it’s an issue that’s important to this collective bargaining unit, they should negotiate it and they should let their membership decide,” she said. “If they want to change what is in our plan and the definitions in our plan, then I think the City Council should weigh in on it, too, because they approved it originally.”
Wells said officials should simply go back to a definition provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, which was the city’s plan administrator in 2010, when the police labor contract went into effect.
That description is much broader and does not include any specific exclusion for same-sex marriages.
In his letter, Wells said Coventry substantially altered the definition of dependents — something that should have been a “mandatory subject of bargaining.”
“I am raising this issue now because until recently I knew of none of my members that were adversely impacted by this change and until yesterday the city had not officially denied coverage to any of the potentially harmed parties,” he wrote.
None of the city’s six other unions has filed a formal complaint, but some union leaders said the issue is likely to come up in the near future.
Larry Tatum, president of one of Omaha’s civilian unions, said one of his members has raised the issue in conversation. The union’s current contract expires in December.
“It’s not at the top of the list, but it’s on the agenda,” he said. “It seems like the right thing to do in the current environment.”
Fire union President Steve LeClair said he hasn’t heard from any of his members, but he would back any who wanted to push for the benefits in negotiations.
“I would be very supportive of helping those people get equality,” he said.
In a meeting of the city’s Personnel Board on Thursday, Assistant City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch said seven city employees have registered their same-sex spouses as dependents during this year’s open enrollment process.