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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
May 20, 2005

Library offers partner benefits, but few can get them

Cleveland--The Cuyahoga County Public Library has begun offering domestic partner benefits to its employees, but with restrictions so tight that only a few people qualify.

The library system blames Ohio law and the constitutional marriage ban amendment for the narrowness.

Cuyahoga, with 28 branches serving the Cleveland suburbs, is the first Ohio public library to offer benefits to domestic partners at all. But its interpretation of the law could affect decisions by other libraries.

The library employs 1,073 people, of which nearly 800 are eligible for benefits, said Human Resources Director Debbie Wells.

The new �dependent benefits� were negotiated April 30 when workers represented by the Service Employees International Union re-opened their year-old contract to improve their health coverage.

Employees thought they were bargaining for domestic partner benefits. They were surprised to find out that in order to qualify under the library�s new plan, their partners must also be their dependents as defined by the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS defines an adult dependent as earning little income on their own and depending on the employee for more than half of their economic support.

Same-sex and opposite-sex partners of library employees who are significantly employed or self-employed are excluded.

The Ohio marriage ban amendment passed last fall as Issue 1 may have influenced this.

According to Wells, the initial contract was approved shortly after Issue 1was announced, but before it passed. A library levy was also in the same election, and it also passed.

�It depended on what the outcome [of both] was,� said Wells.

�Certainly we are interested in making domestic partner benefits available,� said the library�s director, Sari Feldman.

Feldman said the library attorneys advised them that the Ohio law governing public library trustees does not permit offering benefits more broadly.

The law says trustees �may� pay for health insurance �also covering the dependents and spouses of its employees . . .�

Initially, Feldman said the package �was not influenced by the passage of Issue 1. They negotiated this agreement.�

Later, she said, �Issue 1 requires a limited interpretation of the Ohio Revised Code.�

The library was represented in the negotiation by Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor Joyce Dodrill and another attorney.

Dodrill and assistant prosecutor Bob Coury said that it was the library that decided on that interpretation of �dependent.�

�We showed them the IRS code as an example of dependent,� said Coury, adding that the library could have chosen another.

Ohio Library Council spokesperson Lynda Murray said their lawyers believe the law allows libraries to offer domestic partner benefits and does not require that coverage be limited to dependents defined by the IRS.

Prosecutors talk to each other, so the interpretation offered by Dodrill and Coury could be adopted by other counties.

Coury added that Issue 1 could still have a �huge impact.�

�We don�t know what the courts will do with it,� he added.

Service Employees International Union spokesperson Anne Mueller said the library did not point to the Ohio Revised Code section as a reason to limit benefits during the negotiations, and the union also does not agree with their interpretation.

Mueller said SEIU, which represents most public library employees in the northern part of Ohio, wants its members covered by domestic partner benefits. She could not explain why the union didn�t fight harder for them in this case.

Mueller said at most libraries, �there has been no discussion on [domestic partner benefits] beyond entertaining the proposal,� and that Cuyahoga has benefits comparable to or better than other libraries.

The new contract ends March 31, 2007.

�We�re going to raise the matter again,� said Mueller.

 

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