Wash. same sex couples sue Burlington Northern for spousal benefits

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by MEG COYLE / KING 5 NEWS

KREM.com

Posted on December 4, 2013 at 8:04 AM

When Mike and Eli Hall were married back in January, they thought it was the beginning of a new life together. Instead it marked the beginning of what's become a big legal battle over spousal benefits.

"They say marriage is one man, one woman. I'm filing suit to say it's not," said Mike Hall.

"They" is Burlington Northern. Hall is one of their locomotive engineers. But when he tried to add his new husband to his policy, he says the company refused.

"I was told many times by BNSF marriage is one man one woman," he said. "I told them not in Washington state. They still said no."

And today his attorney says the company got it wrong, based on five words in its own contract with the union, of who's eligible for benefits: "your husband or your wife."

"To us this is a straight sex-based discrimination claim," said attorney Cleveland Stockmeyer, "and Burlington Northern is no one to judge who's married and who's not married."

BNSF says it does provide same sex benefits to "salaried" employees, but says it's up to the union to determine spousal benefits in the Hall's case.

"The answer is no, no way, hell no," said Stockmeyer. "You can't bargain your way out of the protection of anti-discrimination laws."

A union representative was also at the press conference in support of the Halls.

What's really going on? Stockmeyer believes it's about big companies' bottom line: "Calculating what it would be to add hundreds of same sex couples to healthcare plans and because they have to pay for that, they want to deny it to save money."

Mike and Eli Hall say they just want what's entitled to them under the law and to fight for their rights and other same-sex couples.

"To make them stop this degrading and illegal discrimination," said Mike Hall.

The Halls and another couple named in the suit are suing for damages that so far total about $100,000.

BNSF issued this statement:

"We have not seen the complaint and cannot respond to specific allegations. However, we can generally state that benefits are available to same-sex spouses of BSNF salaried employees if they were married in a state where such marriage is recognized.

In terms of empoyees covered by collective bargaining agreements, BNSF does not have the ability to unilaterally expand coverage that was negotiated thru multi-employer collective bargaining with rail organizations. Benefits for employees that are members of a labor organization are provided through a nationally bargained, multi-employer arrangement. Under the collective bargaining agreement, a committee composed by labor representatives and management representatives for the rail industry govern the plan. Changes to the plan may only come through the collective bargaining process or through the plan's governing committee.

Such discussions have been ongoing with the various representatives of the parties involved."

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