By GENE JOHNSON
2013-12-05 10:22 AM
SEATTLE (AP) -- The largest U.S. freight rail carriers announced Wednesday they will provide health care benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees, one day after legally married, gay engineers filed a federal lawsuit.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s BNSF Railway Co., read the statement from the National Railway Labor Conference to The Associated Press. The conference represents the railroad companies in dealings with labor groups, lawmakers and courts.
Same-sex spouses will be eligible for dependent health care coverage starting Jan. 1, the statement said.
"While this it is not a benefit required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, the railroads agreed with labor to provide the benefit in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples," the conference said.
The Supreme Court in a landmark decision this year struck down parts of a federal law that denied government benefits to same-sex couples, even if they were married in states that recognize same-sex marriages.
Two BNSF engineers, one man and one woman, sued the company Tuesday over its refusal to provide benefits to their spouses. The lawsuit, which alleges violations of the federal Equal Pay Act, seeks class-action status on behalf of any other BNSF employees who may have been denied benefits for their same-sex spouses in a legally recognized marriage.
A lawyer for the couples, Cleveland Stockmeyer, disagreed with the conference's statement that benefits for same-sex spouses aren't required by law or by collective bargaining. The company's health plan describes eligible dependents as "your husband or wife," without excluding same-sex spouses, he argued.
Stockmeyer said the railroads' decision is a good first step but would only partially resolve the lawsuit. The couples still need to be compensated for the financial and emotional drain of spending months without the benefits as they fought BNSF to have the spouses added, he said.
"It shouldn't take a federal lawsuit to make a national company do the right thing," Stockmeyer said.
The rail conference represents the largest freight carriers in the nation, as well as some smaller railroads. Its statement, reported earlier Wednesday by the Omaha World Herald's Omaha.com, said employees would receive more information about the same-sex spouse health benefits in the coming weeks.