Arcticle from the San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, March 11, 1997

BofA Heeds S.F. Law, Offers Domestic Partner Benefits
Bank's decision covers parents, siblings as well
Ilana DeBare, Chronicle Staff Writer

Bank of America yesterday joined the growing ranks of companies offering health coverage to the domestic partners of their employees -- a move that bank officials said was spurred in part by San Francisco's new law requiring such coverage from companies with city contracts.

With 80,000 U.S. employees, the San Francisco bank is the largest financial institution to offer a significant program of domestic partner benefits.

It is also the first major company to credit the controversial San Francisco law in its decision.

``Beginning in January 1998, Bank of America will begin offering medical, dental and vision coverage to what we are calling extended family members -- a parent, a sister or brother, an adult child, or yes, a domestic partner of the same or opposite sex,'' said bank spokesman Dennis Wyss. ``We feel the San Francisco ordinance was a factor in our decision-making, but it was only one factor. We have been considering this a long time.''

Gay and lesbian employees at BofA had been pressuring the company for years to follow firms such as IBM Corp., Apple Computer and Disney in offering benefits to domestic partners.

In the fall, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a law requiring anyone with a city contract to offer domestic partners the same benefits offered to married couples.

Gay rights advocates praised the bank's decision and credited the mix of internal and external pressure as an influencing force.

``The legislation was the straw that broke the camel's back -- the impetus for the company to do the right thing,'' said Jeff Sheehy, president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Democratic Club.

Elected officials said the bank's move was proof that the domestic partner law was having its intended effect.

``This sends a very positive message and lets other businesses know that domestic partner benefits are workable,'' said Supervisor Leslie Katz, one of the chief backers of the law. ``This is a great example of a responsible business approach to the changing needs of our society. I think we're going to see other large companies that want city contracts moving in this direction.''

But the bank's decision was also greeted with harsh criticism yesterday -- both from conservatives and from some gay rights advocates who felt it didn't go far enough.

``It looks like I'm going to have to do my banking somewhere else,'' said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, a Bank of America customer and chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a group of 8,300 churches that opposes gay rights. ``The backlash from the moderate to conservative parts of California could be quite significant.''

Liz Winfield, a Massachusetts business consultant who conducts education about gays in the workplace, objected to the bank's extension of benefits to family members and domestic partners. BofA is one of the few major companies to offer brothers, sisters and other family members the same benefits as domestic partners.

``That sort of cheapens the (domestic partner) relationship,'' Winfield said. ``If I were an employee who needed benefits, I'd be grateful that this could save me thousands of dollars a year. But I'd also feel that it cheapened my relationship.''

Until yesterday's announcement, BofA had offered bereavement leave and family medical leave to domestic partners of its employees, but health benefits had been reserved for spouses and children.

With the announcement, BofA becomes the 17th Fortune 500 company to offer health benefits to domestic partners, Winfield said. It follows in the footsteps of more than two dozen big Bay Area employers such as Levi Strauss & Co., Kaiser Permanente, Hewlett-Packard Company, Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems.

Bank officials said their new policy would meet the needs of their workforce.

``This is basically an acknowledgment that the families our employees support include parents, siblings, domestic partners and others,'' Wyss said.