SAN FRANCISCO -- Corporate support for gay and transgender rights is reaching workers in new corners of the country and economy six months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, according to a new report card from the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group.
The Human Rights Campaign found that more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies and 90 percent of all large employers it surveyed are offering health insurance and other spousal benefits to same-sex domestic partners of their employees.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Hormel Foods LLC and Wendy's International Inc. are among the corporations extending the benefits for the first time next year, the campaign says in a report scheduled to be issued Monday.
The group's 12th annual Corporate Equality Index, which rates private companies on policies affecting gay and transgender workers and consumers, also found a record number of businesses adopting policies prohibiting discrimination against transgender workers and job applicants. They include 61 percent of the Fortune 500, up from 57 percent a year ago, and 86 percent of the 737 companies evaluated.
With same-sex marriages still outlawed in 34 states and without a federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the ratings suggest that big businesses are helping to fill a gap in rights and recognition, said Deena Fidas, who directs the campaign's Workplace Equality Program. That companies like the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain and discount retailer Dollar General, both headquartered in Tennessee, started sponsoring gay rights events and working to raise their marks on the index this year is as much a bellwether as the 303 employers that received perfect scores, Fidas said.
"There is no more succinct way to say we have arrived than the Wal-Mart story," she said. "The stores and restaurants that you find across strip malls and along highways in every pocket of the country and that are serving demographics that are more senior in age and more rural, cutting across what conventional wisdom would tell you, are places where you now find LGBT-inclusion."
Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, announced in August that it would extend its health care benefits to its full-time U.S. workers' domestic partners, including those of the same sex, starting Jan. 1. The company said it was making the change not as a political or moral decision but because it wanted to have one uniform policy for all 50 states at a time when some states have their own definitions of domestic partnerships and civil unions.
Bi-Lo Holdings LLC, the South Carolina-based parent company of the southern supermarket chains BI-LO and Winn-Dixie, started offering same-sex domestic partner benefits and health coverage to its workers in 2012, which first attracted notice when the company voluntarily submitted the information to the Human Rights Campaign this year.
"Offering same-sex partner coverage directly aligns with the company's diversity and inclusion practices and is part of our strategy to recruit and retain top talent," said Brian Wright, vice president of communications for Bi-Lo Holdings.
The demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing marriages not between a man and a woman, has both directly and indirectly required large employers who had not already done so to acknowledge their gay employees and their families.
After the Supreme Court struck down a critical provision of the act, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Labor Department ruled this fall that widows and widowers who had legally married were entitled to a late same-sex spouse's pension benefits even if they lived in a state that bans gay marriages. The decision has compelled companies to make sure they are in compliance and develop procedures for verifying eligibility,
"The most conservative employer in the world who has no interest in doing this is now legally required to do this," said Todd Solomon, a Chicago lawyer who specializes in employee benefits.
The high court ruling also puts large, multi-state employers with self-funded health plans at risk of being sued for discrimination if they deny coverage to the lawful same-sex spouses of their employees, and many have since decided to offer coverage not only to married gay couples, but those in civil unions or domestic partnerships, Solomon said.
"Large employers are very squeamish about limiting benefits to spouses ... because it's unfair to those who say, live in Georgia and would have to spend several thousand dollars to jump on a plane and fly to New York or New Hampshire to get a marriage license," he said. "There is no way that company is going to limit benefits just to married couples because until marriage is legal in all 50 states, somebody is not getting compensated equally and companies are really, really anxious about treating employees differently."
The campaign also scores companies on "public commitment" -- whether businesses directly appeal to the gay and lesbian community through advertising, philanthropy, recruiting, contracting, and advocacy on issues such as gay marriage. This year, 79 percent of the rated companies received credit in that category.
The trend concerns Chris Stone, a North Carolina brand strategist who evaluates companies on their compatibility with Christian biblical values for his website, the Faith Driven Consumer.
For the second year in a row, Stone has issued a Christmas buyer's guide that detracts points from major retailers that support Planned Parenthood or have been outspoken advocates of same-sex marriage and job discrimination protections for gay workers.
"The LGBT community is here, and they are going to be here. They have been here since the beginning of time and we are not trying to push them out of the marketplace," Stone said. "But ... we are trying to establish our own place within the marketplace as well."