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Airline: San Francisco domestic partner law would have global effect

January 26, 1997

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Disney’s done it. So have Levi Strauss, IBM and American Express.

All offer benefits to employees with domestic partners, many of whom are homosexual. Companies and employees alike say the policy improves morale and can sharpen the recruiting edge.

But nobody forced the decisions; no David aimed a slingshot at a corporate Goliath. Then San Francisco told United Airlines it had to obey an ordinance requiring companies doing business with the city to offer spousal benefits to their workers’ unmarried and same-sex partners.

``We’re surprised. ... We’re disappointed,″ said Mary Jo Holland, a United spokeswoman in Chicago.

Holland said that if United offered benefits in San Francisco, it would have to offer them worldwide. United had no estimate of what such compliance might cost.

United already complies with a New Zealand Human Rights Commission ruling banning benefits that apply only to married couples. That ruling permits New Zealanders to nominate any beneficiary, and United now allows its employees in New Zealand to follow suit.

``The beneficiary could be your next-door neighbor or your auntie,″ said Gordon McLachlan, a United spokesman in New Zealand.

In San Francisco, United employees say they don’t want to take the issue that far. But they do want to be able to offer benefits to their chosen families, straight or not, married or not.

``It’s about equality,″ says Kent Bloom, a flight attendant who has worked 22 years for United and hopes to one day offer his benefits to his partner, Mike Ownbey.

The issue arose after United asked for a new 25-year lease to build kitchens and a maintenance facility at San Francisco International Airport. With approval from the Airports Commission, the company started construction, never dreaming San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors would block the $13.4 million project.

The supervisors also rejected a lease for Pacific Bell Mobile Services; its parent company, Pacific Telesis, says it’s seriously considering adding domestic benefits throughout its operations.

There is some question whether federal laws allow a city to drive corporate benefit plans. But other U.S. cities, including Seattle, West Hollywood, Boston and New York, are thinking about similar policies.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, co-author of the law, is playing down any conflict with United, which is scheduled to appear before the board Monday.

``It’s been blown out of proportion,″ Ammiano said of the law, which was signed last fall and takes effect in June. ``When people read it, any resistance is greatly diminished.″

The fine print, he says, states that the company in question must offer benefits only to employees who ask and who are registered as domestic partners in cities where that is possible, such as San Francisco and New York.

If United were to adopt such a policy in this country, it would be the first major U.S.-based airline to do so.

``But we want to be able to evaluate until June, just like everybody else,″ United’s Holland said.

Several international airlines already have more inclusive benefits.

Qantas Airways, for example, has offered benefits and travel passes to its Australian employees’ ``nominated beneficiaries″ for years.

In Israel, a 1994 lawsuit forced El Al to offer domestic partner benefits. And Air Canada has offered domestic partner benefits to its 18,000 Canadian employees since early last year.

This is not a light matter for either the city or the airline. United is a major player in San Francisco; its facility here, the company’s major maintenance hub and gateway to trans-Pacific flights, employs about 20,000 people _ almost one-fourth of all United employees worldwide. United traffic is 40 percent of all airline business at the San Francisco airport.

Homosexual employees, who’ve formed more than one group to push for domestic partner benefits, say the company has treated them well.

United has sponsored AIDS walks and the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It is the official airline of San Francisco’s Gay Men’s Chorus and has hired marketing people to target homosexual customers.

``They don’t go out there and wave rainbow flags, but they were the first U.S. airline to ban discrimination, and we were the first to form a gay and lesbian group,″ said Thomas Cross, a flight attendant.

But the issue of domestic partners, he says, has caused discomfort.

``They’ve never just said no,″ Cross said. ``They just looked at us with this blank stare as if to say, `We don’t really want to do this; we don’t really want to talk about this.‴

Bloom, Cross’ fellow flight attendant, remains hopeful, saying, ``The company’s there. They just haven’t taken that last jump off the cliff.″

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