When the Flagler County School Board unanimously approved bereavement leave for school support personnel in domestic partnerships in July as part of the latest labor negotiations, it was the first time that domestic partnerships that include same-sex unions have been acknowledged in the contract. This opens up questions about why now and what benefits could follow.
“It’s way past time” says Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler Educators Association, Flagler County’s teachers’ union. Yet there haven’t been any similar requests made for teachers. She hopes it’s only a matter of time.
Why has it taken so long? There’s always pressure to make such changes. Domestic partnership “was probably just one of those things that slipped through the cracks,” she said. “It’s just one of those things that, if no one brings it up or to our attention, then it doesn’t go to the table. But it’s definitely something we’ll negotiate the next time we go back to the table with the district. It’s just something that we haven’t discussed or has been on the forefront of our brains when we went to negotiation. But it is something we’d definitely like to see in place for the teachers of Flagler County.”
When it came to recognizing domestic partnerships in the support personnel contract, Becky Harper, the president of the union, reportedly said that they had a team member who had been in a domestic partnership for 20 years. From time to time, in the history of the teacher’s union bargaining team, they’ve also had individuals who were part of domestic partnerships, says Hansen.
According to Flagler School Board member Trevor Tucker, granting bereavement leave to domestic partnerships was just one item within the whole of a larger contract that was approved unanimously. He couldn’t say if there was any back-and-forth in discussions regarding that specific item, as board members are prohibited from speaking about what goes on in their executive session meetings, but only until contracts are finalized.
If it were up to him, however, if a really close friend were to die, “they should get time off for that as well: My personal opinion. That’s not always the best business decision,” says Tucker, owner of his own business, Sun Country Pest Control.
Will this addition to the contract open the door to other such benefits? “Unions usually want more time off and more pay,” Tucker says. “The school board wants them to work more for less pay. That’s traditionally how these negotiations go and somewhere in the middle is a happy medium for everybody.”
The two union contracts–for teachers and support personnel–often end up mirroring each other. “Once they’ve agreed for it in one contract, it’s pretty common for them to move to the other,” Hansen says of the school board. For example, a year ago, after language appeared in the support personnel’s contract regarding bullying and harassment, the teachers’ contract followed suit.
It shouldn’t end with bereavement leave, Hansen says. “In my personal opinion, it should move over to all things.”
“I think it’s fantastic that the district is recognizing same-sex relationships and that there are times in bereavement that folks need some time off to be with their families,” says Mallory Garner-Wells, the public policy director for Equality Florida, a statewide gay and lesbian advocacy organization. Equality Florida currently has a lawsuit against the state of Florida for its refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriages recognized by the federal government. Bans on same-sex unions were declared unconstitutional in at least five court cases–in state and federal court–so far in Florida, but in every case, decisions have been stayed pending action at the state Supreme Court or at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Looking ahead, Garner-Wells says, “One of the things we’ve seen is a school district or a city commission make one small change that they feel comfortable with right now and they realize that it’s a very positive thing.” Then they expand upon them.
But there’s been little to no interest in going further in Flagler in any of the local government agencies. Barbara Revels, the county commissioner, last year spoke of initiating some movement toward greater rights for government employees in same-sex relationships, but no measure was introduced to that effect. Both incumbents who got re-elected to the county commission this month avoided answered questions about same-sex rights.
“Benefits to all individuals in whatever legal arrangement exists should always be offered,” Nate McLaughlin said without addressing what room the commission has to expand on such rights. Similarly, Commissioner Frank Meeker said: “It’s not a question about what my “heart” says or doesn’t say, it’s a question about law. I’m not in favor of granting something if I might have to take it back at a later date. The courts are wrestling with this right now, and when the decision is made, we will adjust our policies as necessary as required to by law.”
Not that the school district is that far ahead of the curve. When it comes to the school union contracts, Flagler is about on par with most other Florida school districts, with a few more progressive exceptions. Broward County, for example, created the Broward County Domestic Partnership Act of 1999. Last December, Pensacola, a conservative town, approved a domestic-partnership registry.
With the dialogue happening across the nation, it fits that these things are happening now, Garner-Wells says, noting the multiple marriage equality lawsuits against the state of Florida. The suit in which Equality Florida is the plaintiff is at the Miami Day clerical court. Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office is charged with defending Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage, which voters approved in 2008 as a constitutional amendment, even though Florida law already banned such unions. It is now legal in 32 states for same-sex couples to marry, and until last week not a single federal appeals court had overturned marriage-equality measures. But on Nov. 6, the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, upheld bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, all but ensuring that the issue will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly in its current term (which ends in June.)
“We feel there’s been a huge sea change in relation to public opinion on marriage equality for same sex couples. Florida has really followed the trend of the rest of the nation on this,” Garner-Wells says. “I think more people are familiar with same-sex couples, their lives, and their families.” The sea change was triggered by the Supreme Court’s striking down the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act last year.
Republican State Representative Travis Hutson happens to be one of Equality Florida’s allies in Tallahassee, says Garner-Wells. He’s currently supporting a bi-partisan bill that would prohibit discrimination in housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender-identity. (Hutson resigned last week to run for ex-Sen. John Thrasher’s seat.)
Garner-Wells says Florida is home to hundreds of thousands of LGBT folks, with 184,000 LGBT members in Equality Florida alone. Court decisions will help decide whether or not Florida is a desirable place to locate or leave, she says. “You have to ask yourself if you’re an LGBT person who wants to have a family and wants to take care of that family in the best possible way, why would you live in a place like Florida when you can live in a place like Massachusetts?”
Some 57 percent of Floridians now support marriage equality–without any broad ballot initiative campaign. “It’s been a very rapid transition but for us a very pleasant one,” Garner-Wells says.