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Lawsuit spurs railroads to offer benefits to same-sex spouses

SEATTLE (Dec. 12, 2013) — Last week, the nation’s railroad engineers achieved a major victory. Just one day after two BNSF Railway employees from Washington state filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against their employer for refusing to offer medical benefits to same-sex spouses, the National Railway Labor Conference coalition representing America’s biggest railroads announced that its member employers will begin providing those benefits starting Jan. 1, 2014.

BNSF engineer Michael Hall and his spouse, Elijah, and engineer Amie Garrand and her spouse, Carol, filed the federal suit claiming that, despite repeatedly trying to get health coverage after Washington legalized same-sex marriage, they were told by the company that it has a “stated policy” that “marriage is between one man and one woman.” So they sued. And the very next day, the railway coalition announced the new coverage.

BLET“This is a very important issue to us,” said Mike Elliott of the Washington Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “The legislation on same-sex marriage in Washington and other states prompted the need to update the various benefit plans to rectify what now amounts to discriminatory practices. While the process for making changes to the railroad benefits plan is national in scope, it shouldn’t take years to accomplish the task. While there had been discussions between labor and the railroads, no clear timeline for actually updating the plan had been released. For some of our members, this wasn’t just an issue of basic fairness under the law, it was a matter of life and death.”

When Hall and Garrand announced their lawsuit, a spokesman for BNSF initially claimed that health benefits were governed by language in the union contracts and could only be modified through collective bargaining. But Elliott said the state law governing benefits for same-sex couples takes precedence.

“Bad publicity is about the only thing the railways respond to,” Herb Krohn, state legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, told The Seattle Times. “I’m really, really happy about the outcome. This is a major victory. It’s just disappointing that it takes hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits to get them to do the right thing.”

(SMART is the new International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ union, created by the merger of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association and United Transportation Union.)

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