ACLU Seeks Health Insurance and Family Leave for Lesbian and Gay Wisconsin State Employees

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
April 20, 2005 12:00 am

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MADISON, WI — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today against the state of Wisconsin on behalf of six lesbian employees and their partners seeking domestic partner health insurance and family leave protections.

“I worked as many hours and just as hard as my straight colleagues and coworkers. I shouldn’t be denied the ability to provide my family with health insurance solely because my partner of 29 years is another woman,” said Virginia Wolf, a minister and retired English professor at the University of Wisconsin – Stout.

Married employees of the state of Wisconsin are permitted to include their spouses and children on the state insurance plan. The lawsuit filed today charges that Wisconsin’s policy violates the state constitution’s equal protection guarantees to block lesbian and gay employees, who are barred from marrying in the state, from access to the same coverage for their families.

“This is a matter of basic fairness — of whether gay and lesbian employees should receive less compensation than their straight employees for doing the same work,” said Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin, who noted that along with actual salary, health insurance is an important portion of how employees are compensated.

Diane Schermann, who works for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, is a plaintiff in the case with her partner, Michelle Collins. Because they can’t afford an individual health insurance policy for Collins, she doesn’t have a regular physician, exacerbating health problems she suffers from a back injury.

“Instead of seeing one primary care doctor, Michelle has to rely on a patchwork of free clinic visits, worker’s compensation coverage, and emergency care visits,” Schermann said. “It is difficult to watch my partner live with physical pain, and it makes it more difficult to know that the only thing preventing me from covering her is the fact that we’re lesbians.”

The lawsuit also seeks equal access to family leave protections provided by the state. Eloise McPike works for the Department of Corrections at a jail in Milwaukee. When her partner of 20 years, Janice Barnett, was severely injured in an out-of-state car accident several years ago, McPike wasn’t allowed to leave to be with her as any other state employee would have been able to do. Instead, she had to submit a formal vacation request and then wait and worry for five days, hundreds of miles away, for it to be approved before she could be by Barnett’s side. Although Social Security covered some of Barnett’s medical care, the couple now has to spend $260 per month on private insurance and prescription drugs because Barnett’s injuries only allow her to work part time and she doesn’t qualify for insurance.

Jody Helgeland, a research specialist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Jessie Tanner celebrated their 10th anniversary in December. The couple can’t afford private insurance for Tanner, who suffers from severe asthma and allergies. Her medications, which total over $600 per month, would only cost $75 per month if she were covered under the university health plan. Once, Tanner had an asthma attack so acute that Helgeland had to take her to an urgent care facility that charged $105 per visit. At these prices, the couple can’t afford to return for follow-up visits or buy Tanner’s medications every month.

Today’s lawsuit comes as governments, universities, companies and other employers increasingly extend benefits to employees’ domestic partners. The University of Wisconsin is now the only Big Ten university that does not offer domestic partner benefits, the ACLU said.

“Lesbian and gay Wisconsin state employees have been struggling for well over a decade to obtain fairness in health insurance benefits,” said Christopher Ott, Executive Director of Action Wisconsin, the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization. “After years of our community running into bureaucratic and legislative roadblocks, these couples are hoping that the courts will put an end to needless financial and medical struggles for them and other state employees. This lawsuit is about the real harms caused to real families by unequal treatment.”

The case is Helgeland v. Department of Employee Trust Funds. The couples are represented by John Knight and Rose Saxe of the ACLU’s Lesbian & Gay Rights Project, Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin, and cooperating attorneys Linda Roberson and Christopher Krimmer of the Madison law firm Balisle & Roberson.

Biographical information for all of the couples, the complaint filed today, and additional information are available at /caseprofiles.

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