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UW System expanding benefits to domestic partners

October 15, 2009

As a part of Wisconsin’s 2009 state budget, UW System employees will be eligible to receive domestic partner benefits beginning Jan. 1, 2010.

Act 28 of the state budget bill states that, “employees of the University of Wisconsin System will be eligible to cover a same-sex or opposite-sex domestic partner and the domestic partner’s children under the family health insurance policy.”

To qualify as being a part of a domestic partnership, partners must share a common residence, consider themselves a part of each other’s immediate family and be responsible for each other’s basic living expenses.  Additionally, the partnership cannot violate any state statutes that prohibit marriage based on kinship or divorce, according to the UW System Web site.

Once qualified, unregistered domestic partners will be able to receive not only health insurance, but life insurance, dental insurance, and Wisconsin Retirement System benefits. System employees will also be able to take a leave of absence to care for a partner or partner’s children under the Wisconsin Family Medical Leave Act.

Unregistered domestic partnerships are available to same-sex and opposite-sex partners. Registered partnerships are obtainable by opposite-sex couples only under Wisconsin’s domestic partner registry, according to the UW System Web site.

Dr. David Rainville, a chemistry professor at UW-River Falls and chair of the University’s Faculty Senate, said he feels some of the benefits provided beyond health care will have the biggest impact.

“The fact that your domestic partner could get your retirement benefits is huge,” he said. “That could be bigger than the health insurance in many cases.”

On March 9, then-UWRF Interim Chancellor Connie Foster approved a motion put forth by the Faculty Senate in support of domestic partnership benefits for UW System employees.

Though the UW System is taking action, many neighboring universities have long since had these policies in place.

The UW System is the last university system affiliated with the Big Ten Conference to implement a domestic partnership benefit plan, Rainville said.

“This has been something that’s been on the burner for a long time,” he said. “Whether it was outside pressure or internal decisions, it’s finally getting done.”

The new policy has received backlash from Wisconsin Family Action Inc. The group filed a lawsuit on July 23 against the state of Wisconsin claiming domestic partnership benefits are unconstitutional based on Article XIII, Section 13 of the state constitution, which bans same-sex marriages.

Though the UW System’s actions regarding domestic partnerships are not without controversy, Dr. Greta Gaard, professor of English at UWRF, said she sees them as a positive with work still to be done.

“It’s something that has been fought for for a long time,” she said. “It’s certainly a step forward, but it’s still not including everyone.”

Gaard refers to a same-sex couple’s inability to register with the state, along with the common dwelling requirements, as continued inequalities.

“It’s striving to create equality, but it’s not,” she said. “The fact is not even heterosexual couples always conform to society’s norms. Many married couples work in different cities and travel to meet each other. Why are they different?”