SEATTLE (CN) - One day after two gay employees sued BNSF Railway in Federal Court, the National Railway Labor Conference announced that freight carriers will begin providing insurance coverage to same-sex spouses of railroad employees, beginning on New Year's Day.
"While this is not a benefit required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, the railroads agreed with labor to provide this benefit in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access the same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples," the NRLC said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Michael Hall, an engineer, and Amie Garrand, a conductor, filed a class action under the Equal Pay Act, claiming BNSF discriminated in refusing to provide their same-sex spouses with health insurance.
BNSF has - or had - a "policy" of not paying such benefits because "marriage is between one man and one woman," according to the lawsuit.
Hall claims his spouse, Elijah Hall Uber, has been repeatedly turned down for benefits "based solely on the fact Michael is male."
"BNSF has directly and through its apparent and authorized agent United Healthcare stated its reason for not covering Elijah is it has a 'policy' that 'marriage is one man, one woman'; although Michael Hall and Elijah Hall have explained many times this definition of marriage is not the law in Washington state, and Elijah is the spouse and husband of Michael Hall, factually, and legally," according to the complaint.
Washington legalized gay marriage last year.
"The one man/one woman definition of spouse used by BNSF to limit its liability to cover spousal health benefits amounts to a BNSF policy to discriminate against Michael Hall simply because he is male; under this policy, if he were a female married to Elijah, the benefit would be paid," the complaint states.
Hall was married in January and says he has "repeatedly requested that BNSF cover Elijah's health care costs."
After he emailed BNSF's CEO and other managers about the discrimination, Hall says, he received a threatening phone call at home from a supervisor, who warned him it was going to be a "long bumpy battle."
After numerous phone calls to United Healthcare, BNSF's insurance provider, Hall says, he was finally sent a denial letter that relied on a benefit booklet. The booklet "stated that a 'wife' or 'husband' is covered and does exclude spouses in a legal same-sex marriage," according to the complaint.
Loss of the benefits costs the couple thousands of dollars a month, according to the complaint. Hall Uber has monthly medical bills of about $2,400, the complaint states.
Garrand claims she had a similar experience trying to sign up her wife for benefits.
"Amie Garrand has several times requested that BNSF or United Healthcare cover the health care costs of her spouse, Carol Garrand, including costs the couple incurred relating to birth of a son by Carol after the marriage in 2013. BNSF has failed and refused to cover the spousal health care costs, including through communications from United Healthcare, citing its policy that marriage is one man one woman," according to the complaint.
Garrand cites numerous conversations she had with various BNSF and United Healthcare employees, and says she was finally able to add her son to her policy, but not her spouse.
"At times BNSF or United Healthcare told Garrand that a collective bargaining agreement forces them to deny coverage for Carol Garrand. This was not true factually or legally. The benefits plan said 'Your wife or husband' is an eligible dependent and in any event excluding same-sex spouses is illegal pay discrimination based on the sex of the employee. Union contracts are not a legal way to excuse or justify discrimination," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs say BNSF violates the Equal Pay Act by denying equal pay in the form of spousal health care benefits based on sex. They sought actual and punitive damages, an injunction and order requiring BNSF to pay the benefits of any legal spouse, regardless of sex.
Their attorney, Cleveland Stockmeyer, told the Seattle Times the coverage announcement is "a step in the right direction," but BNSF have to retroactively cover the benefits.