Steps Toward Equality

Today the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs reviews the nomination of John Berry to be Director of the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM. Berry, if confirmed, would face an urgent human capital crisis, with almost half of the federal workforce reaching retirement age in the next 10 years. He could use a number of much-needed reforms at OPM to attract and retain skilled employees, but the Center for American Progress hopes that Congress will give him an essential tool in this effort by passing the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act. Berry would become the highest-ranking openly gay official in any administration, and his support for the act could significantly improve the federal workplace for lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees.

The act would authorize the government to extend the rights and responsibilities of married couples, such as health and retirement benefits, to federal employees in committed same-sex domestic partnerships. For the over 8,600 for-profit companies that offer domestic partner benefits, those benefits have proven to be an essential tool in recruiting talented lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees. Domestic partner benefits are the most important consideration for 48 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees when considering a job switch, and many heterosexual employees consider the benefits a signal that they are working for an open, tolerant workplace.

Domestic partner benefits have also worked well for public-sector employers. As CAP found in last year’s report, “One Simple Step for Equality,” domestic partner benefit programs have been successful for the 15 states and the District of Columbia that have offered them to their employees. The programs imposed minimal costs on the states, garnered public support, and attracted the best possible workforce. They illustrate how easy and beneficial it would be for the federal government to implement the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act.

Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, OPM leadership stood opposed to the act, without good reason. At a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing last year, former OPM Deputy Director Howard Weizmann referred to the Adam Sandler film, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” as primary evidence for his claim that domestic partnerships would have more capacity for benefit fraud than marriages.

But despite past OPM resistance, we are optimistic that if confirmed, John Berry would reverse the office’s approach to domestic partner benefits. He has a long and successful track record on federal workforce issues, from developing the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act as a staffer for current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to serving as Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget at the Department of the Interior. At the Department of Interior, Berry was a strong advocate for gay and lesbian employees, eliminating discriminatory policies in the National Park Service, and establishing a grievance procedure for Interior employees who faced discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Berry’s confirmation, along with passage of the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act, could help the federal government address skilled worker shortages and promote a more open and tolerant workplace for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual employees.

Winnie Stachelberg is Senior Vice President for External Affairs at American Progress, and Josh Rosenthal is Special Assistant for External Affairs.