Union employees of major U.S. railways will be able to get medical coverage for their same-sex spouses Jan. 1, a labor coalition said Wednesday, the day after a lawsuit over such benefits was filed against BNSF Railway.
The suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle and said same-sex spouses were routinely denied medical coverage by the freight hauler.
The dispute has been fast-moving. Wednesday afternoon, the rail company coalition that bargains with the 13 major unions representing rail workers said coverage would be available to same-sex spouses come January.
“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 said. “While this is not a benefit required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, the railroads agreed with labor to provide this benefit in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access the same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples.”
The Seattle lawsuit was filed by two engineers — one man and one woman — and their same-sex spouses. It says BNSF has a “stated policy” that “one man and one woman” is what constitutes marriage.
“BNSF does not get to judge what marriage is,” the suit says.
BNSF, owned by Omaha’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said the matter was properly handled through the National Railway Labor Conference, which could have tackled it either through collective bargaining or as it did, via the governing committee.
“This was the correct way to deal with the issue,” said Steve Forsberg, BNSF’s director of external relations. “Changes to the plan must come through the collective bargaining process or through the plan’s governing committee because the agreement involves multiple employers and multiple unions.”
Spouses of salaried employees (as opposed to union members) in same-sex unions, Forsberg said, are eligible for health care coverage if they were married in a state where such marriages are legal. Such unions are not legal in Nebraska, where BNSF employs about 5,000 people.
Nebraska is also home to Union Pacific Corp., the Omaha-based railroad that is the largest in the nation when ranked by 2012 operating income, just ahead of BNSF. Union Pacific employs about 5,000 people in Omaha and about 50,000 nationwide. Email and voice mail messages left with the company were not returned.