A day after two gay engineers from Washington filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against BNSF Railway, a coalition representing the nation’s largest freight carriers announced big rail will begin providing health-care benefits to same-sex spouses of employees starting next year.
“The nation’s largest freight carriers will provide dependent health-care coverage to eligible same-sex spouses of covered railroad employees effective Jan. 1, 2014,” the National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC) said in the statement. The NRLC is a Washington, D.C.-based coalition for BNSF and other rail companies that bargains with the 13 major unions representing rail workers.
The statement added that rail companies would provide the benefits, even though the coalition doesn’t believe such coverage is required by law or existing collective-bargaining agreements.
Gus Melonas, a regional spokesman for BNSF, confirmed the statement Wednesday but declined further comment.
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The announcement will do little to stop the federal suit, however, a Seattle lawyer representing the two BNSF engineers said Wednesday.
“If it’s true they’re going to start providing health coverage, I would say that’s a step in the right direction,” attorney Cleveland Stockmeyer said. “But the lawsuit would only be partially resolved. They would still have to cover the year it took to get around to finally doing this.”
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, was brought by BNSF engineer Michael Hall and his spouse, Elijah Uber Hall, and engineer Amie Garrand and her spouse, Carol Garrand. It claims the employees repeatedly tried to get health coverage since Washington legalized same-sex marriage, but were told the railroad has a “stated policy” that “marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Stockmeyer said neither he nor his clients have been contacted by BNSF about Wednesday’s announcement. He added that his clients intend to pursue the suit to seek retroactive benefit payments and punitive damages for emotional distress. Hall and his spouse have incurred more than $24,000 in expenses for uncovered benefits since marrying in January, he said.
“And why isn’t this effective immediately?” Stockmeyer asked of the company’s sudden reversal on Wednesday. “BNSF shouldn’t get to break the law for another month until this kicks in.”
Melonas said Tuesday that employee benefits are governed largely by language in union contracts, which can be modified only through collective bargaining.
But Washington representatives for railway unions disagreed on Wednesday, contending the company has provisions for updating labor-contract language between bargaining periods. The NRLC ultimately made the announcement through its governing committee on Wednesday.
“This one was cut and dry from our perspective,” said Mike Elliott, spokesman for the Washington legislative board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “We have a law in this state that same-sex couples are entitled to benefits. That should carry over.”
After the coalition’s announcement came Wednesday, Elliott and Herb Krohn, Washington’s legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, separately said they were pleased with the news, but disappointed it took so long.
“Bad publicity is about the only thing the railways respond to,” Krohn said. “I’m really, really happy about the outcome. This is a major victory. It’s just disappointing that it takes hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits to get them to do the right thing.”
Lewis Kamb: email@example.com or 206-464-2932. Twitter: @lewiskamb