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General Motors Demonstrates Another Kind of Industry Leadership

Drew Dowdell

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General Motors made news yesterday when it announced that it would recognize a legal, same-sex marriage for U.S. employees for benefits purposes no matter which state that employee resides in, making the benefit package identical to those of married opposite-sex couples.

When I first saw the headlines of this coming across Twitter, I was confused. General Motors has offered healthcare benefits to same-sex domestic partners since August of 2000 and further expanded the benefit offering in January of 2003. General Motors participates in various Pride celebrations and even has produced LGBT focused advertising. In fact, General Motors received the Human Right Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index perfect score of 100 points each year since 2006. With GM’s already stellar leadership in supporting diversity both inside and outside of the corporation, why would such a change make headlines?

Part of the reason rests with a change announced by the Internal Revenue Service regarding same-sex marriage recognition on August 29th of this year. After the Supreme Court ruled in June that parts of the Defense of Marriage Act were unconstitutional, the IRS announced that all same-sex couples legally married in one of the 14 states (soon to be 15 or 16) that allow same-sex marriage would be required to file their federal taxes as “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately” regardless of their state of residence.

This means that my partner and I could travel to 4 of the 6 surrounding states (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, or Delaware) to get married and the Federal Government would recognize that marriage even though my home state of Pennsylvania does not.

So why this is a big deal and why General Motors deserves praise is with regards to the speed they reacted to this rule change announced just 70 days ago. They are one of the earliest of all Fortune 500 companies to announce such a change and to the best of my knowledge the first of all of the vehicle manufacturers.

What is the change for GM employees that are already registered for Domestic Partnership benefits but who are or will be legally married? I emailed Lynda Messina, Manager of Employee Engagement & Retiree Communications for the details.

· Pension Plans – now able to elect surviving spouse benefits at retirement for a same-sex spouse.

· Savings Plans – now able to name same-sex spouse as spousal beneficiary

· Health Care Plans – now able to add same-sex spouse as a dependent with no imputed income for federal tax purposes

She told me that the changes apply to all hourly and salary employees including those under collective bargaining agreements. Additionally, couples married in other countries, as long as it was lawful in the jurisdiction of celebration, will be eligible.

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A recent advertisement from General Motors supporting LGBT Pride celebrations.

Click picture to enlarge.

I asked Lynda if domestic partnership benefits would still be available and were there any plans to discontinue domestic partnership benefits for non-married employees in thefuture. She replied “Marriage is an important decision and, as such, is up to each employee. Employees can continue to cover eligible same-sex domestic partners under applicable benefit plan terms and administrative procedures. However, this will not provide for the same benefits as a same-sex spouse.” Regarding the possibility of partnership benefits cancellation in the future, she said, “not to my knowledge”.

It is speculation on my part, but I cannot see General Motors or indeed any other company that makes this change sticking with a dual plan setup for long as there are tax and benefit implications for both the employee and company.

In a statement released today, GM’s Chief Diversity Officer Ken Barrett said, “This decision is in line with GM’s efforts to find, keep and grow the world’s best talent and to offer our employees policies and benefits that are competitive with many of the largest and best-managed industrial companies in the U.S.”

In any industry, leadership is not just about building the best product. Leadership is also demonstrated in how the company treats the people who build that class-leading product. By moving so quickly to improve the benefit policies regarding same-sex spouses following the recent IRS rule change, General Motors is not just competitive, but has set a new bar for the industry to meet.



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