Health Care Coverage For Spouses: Benefit Or Bias?

Is it a violation of marital status discrimination laws to offer certain employee incentives to one group based on familial status while offering no comparable program to the excluded party?
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Recently, I've been thinking a lot about what constitutes a family. Maybe I'm feeling that annual holiday anxiety about traveling to see my own clan. It may be that many families I know seem to be changing--some shrinking as a result of death, divorce, or alienation; others expanding to welcome new lives or once-estranged relatives back into the fold. Most certainly, it has something to do with the fact that I work at the Sloan Work and Family Research Network at Boston College as a policy assistant and my job entails thinking about these issues.

What I have come to realize is that our national definition of family is starting to stretch beyond the milk-and-cookies acknowledgement that many different types of families exist. While we all know that families are intensely personal, they are often intensely political entities, as well. Take Maine's recent referendum on gay marriage, for example, and you can feel the heat. Apart from the more obvious discussion of same-sex marriage that the referendum raises, what is included or omitted regarding workplace policies can reflect the tension that exists in our nation about what constitutes family and the value we place on family relationships.

A new Sloan Network policy brief focusing on workplace policies and unmarried workers addresses this issue. As I worked on this brief, I found my views on work and family policies changing. For example, I once took for granted the health insurance I receive through my spouse's employer. However, after writing this brief, I am struck by how little is said in the health care reform debate about the fairness and even legality of providing greater healthcare benefits to married employees. In addition, I wonder about friends and family members who, if facing a long-term illness, may not have anyone available to take time off from work to care for them due to the limitations of most family leave policies.

Do we set up an unrealistic and unfair expectation by valuing in real dollar amounts the relationship I have with my spouse over the relationship I have with my best friend, Anne? Is it a violation of marital status discrimination laws to offer employee incentives to one group based on familial status, while offering no comparable programs to other groups? Is there value in supporting and encouraging family ties, especially the institution of marriage, through workplace policies, even if certain groups are excluded from these policies?

Considering the fact that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 95.9 million Americans 18 years of age and older were unmarried in 2008, up from 37.5 million in 1970, and that unmarried employees make up over 40 percent of the full-time workforce, these are questions that cannot be ignored. The unmarried constituency is growing politically, evidenced by the number of advocacy groups, like Unmarried America, active in this field, as well. The need to emphasize fairness does not lessen the claims of married workers with dependent children. However, it does point to the need for work and family policies that look beyond traditional families, and examine the many different types of personal needs individual workers are facing.

My hope in writing the policy brief was to open up the discussion and get us thinking beyond our accustomed notions of work and family. By questioning what we value and why, we may come closer to understanding others' viewpoints. In considering a variety of viewpoints, we may come closer to crafting policies that support all workers as they try to meet the many demands of life in and out of work.

To view the policy brief, "Marital Status Discrimination: Are Family-Friendly Policies Meeting the Needs of Unmarried Workers?" please visit

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