SEATTLE — The issue of whether the surviving spouse of a married gay couple should be given an employee’s pension benefits has come up in contract talks between the Boeing Co. and its 23,000 aerospace engineers and technicians in the SPEEA union.
The issue arose last week. SPEEA Executive Director Ray Goforth said Boeing made it clear it wants to do away with pensions for all new hires starting Jan. 1 and does not want to add any new individuals to the plan.
“We had what we thought was an administrative issue: How are we going to fold R-74 (the gay marriage initiative) into the pension? And it turned into a half-hour debate with the company,” Goforth said.
The union chief said Boeing negotiators discussed the issue with their lawyers and came back to the table with an answer on R-74.
“They said because pensions are governed by federal law, they didn’t have to recognize state law in this matter and they weren’t going to,” Goforth said.
Attorney David Ward with the group Legal Voice said that while Washington state can’t force companies to give federally regulated pension survivor’s benefits to gay spouses, companies can choose to do so on their own.
“We recognize that federal law does not always require equal treatment because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, but there is nothing that prohibits companies from treating same sex couples fairly,” Ward said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to meet behind closed doors Friday to decide what, if any, cases to hear challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder issued the following statement: “Boeing has informed employees that the company is taking a closer look at R-74 and its impact on current policies and benefits once the law goes into effect in Washington state in December. We’re studying how any change to our pension plan would impact our growing pension obligations, and we’ll continue to discuss it with SPEEA.”
The gay marriage law goes into effect in Washington state Dec. 6.
SPEEA and Boeing plan to resume contract negotiations Tuesday.