September 29, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Exxon Mobil to offer spousal benefits to gay employees
Exxon, Mobil, gay news, Washington Blade

Exxon Mobil has adopted spousal benefits for its gay employees (Photo of Exxon sign by Ildar Sagdejev, photo of Mobil sign by Terence Ong; courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Faced with criticism over anti-LGBT policies and a lawsuit alleging anti-gay bias in its hiring practices, oil-and-gas giant Exxon Mobil has elected to offer employees in same-sex marriages health and pension benefits.

Alan Jeffers, an Exxon Mobil spokesperson, said in a statement Friday the company had decided to institute the benefits in the wake of the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act to achieve consistency with the federal government.

“ExxonMobil will recognize all legal marriages for the purposes of eligibility in U.S. benefit plans to ensure consistency for employees across the country,” Jeffers said. “The decision is consistent with the direction of most U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, Treasury and the IRS. Legal marriages are determined by the laws of the state or country where the marriage took place.”

Jeffers said this approach to spousal benefits is consistent in all countries where Exxon Mobil operates, which looks to national laws to determine eligibility for spousal benefits. According to Exxon Mobil, the company provides benefits to same-sex spouses in 30 countries outside the United States.

Speaking with the Blade, Jeffers declined to say who executed the change within Exxon Mobil, but maintained it was enacted for the sake of consistency and will be effective Tuesday. Jeffers said the company won’t recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, only legal marriages.

Exxon Mobil enacts these benefits amid criticism for having anti-LGBT policies. For example, the company has no non-discrimination protections for workers based on sexual orientation and gender identity in its Equal Employment Opportunity guidance. Exxon Mobil has the notorious distinction of being rated “-25″ in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, the lowest of any company.

Deena Fidas, director of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program, called the move from Exxon Mobil “a step toward equality,” but expressed continued disappointment with the company for its overall practices in comparison to its competitors like Chevron or BP.

“There is no federal law protecting employees from discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity and ExxonMobil refuses to join the majority of their Fortune 500 colleagues in adopting their own such policies,” Fidas said. “One has to wonder, what good are benefits for your same-sex spouse if you risk being fired for disclosing your sexual orientation in order to access them?”

The new policy from Exxon Mobil follows a similar decision from retail giant Walmart, which announced earlier this month it would begin offering domestic partner benefits to employees. But unlike Exxon Mobil, Walmart isn’t recognizing the same-sex marriages of workers for the purposes, even in states where same-sex marriage is legal.

For the 16th time this year, Exxon Mobil shareholders rejected a resolution that would have expanded the company’s equal employment opportunity policy to include non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers. This year, the resolution was sponsored by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose state owns a significant share of the company.

In a statement, DiNapoli commended Exxon Mobil for its new policy.

“Corporate discrimination in any form is simply not good business,” DiNapoli said. “On behalf of those who have supported the New York State Common Retirement Fund’s shareholder resolutions on this issue over these past four years, I am gratified that ExxonMobil, one of the largest corporations in the world and one of the Fund’s largest holdings, will treat its employees with the dignity, equality and respect that they deserve.”

Exxon Mobil enacts the new policy as it faces a lawsuit in Illinois filed by the LGBT group Freedom to Work over alleged anti-gay bias in hiring practices. The case is pending before the Illinois Department of Human Rights.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, called the company’s new policy “a victory,” but said it should be followed with the company settling the lawsuit by enacting a non-discrimination policy for its LGBT workers.

“It’s time for Exxon to stop wasting its shareholders’ money by running up legal bills on discrimination proceedings that can be settled right away if the corporation would simply add LGBT protections to Exxon’s official equal employment opportunity document,” Almeida said. “We’d like to begin settlement talks next week in our Illinois lawsuit stemming from evidence that Exxon gave hiring preference to a less qualified straight applicant over a more qualified lesbian applicant.”

But Exxon Mobil shows no signs of buckling on the issue of non-discrimination. Jeffers said the equal employment opportunity is based on the current federal law — which affords no explicit protections for LGBT workers — and said Freedom to Work’s lawsuit is without merit because it’s based on fictitious resumes sent to the company and not any real discrimination.

“We have responded to the claims,” Jeffers said. “We consider them baseless, without merit. We feel that the organization filed the complaint to really use our name to advance its political agenda. This is not a case of discrimination. We do not accept the claim and provided a response to the Department of Human Rights in Illinois.”

Additionally, Jeffers said the company has a “zero-tolerance” policy for discrimination. Although the equal employment non-discrimination policy doesn’t include protections for LGBT workers, Jeffers said the company has “very explicit” training against any form of discrimination, including sexual orientation, and has employee affinity groups, including one for LGBT employees.

Almeida acknowledged he had read the response filed by Exxon Mobil in the case and said it was written by Seyfarth Shaw, a Chicago-based firm that he earlier said was representing Exxon Mobil in the case. However, Almeida declined to provide a copy of the response. Exxon Mobil didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up request to provide the response.

Still, Almeida noted Exxon Mobil made the change to spousal benefits one week after the Labor Department made public its post-DOMA guidance for employer-provided pension and health care for employees, saying it’s evidence the company will act in a pro-LGBT way if required by federal law.

“The timing shows that Exxon is the kind of company that only does the right thing when they are forced by law, and therefore we will push forward on Freedom to Work’s lawsuit until Exxon agrees to amend its policies to make clear that LGBT Americans have the same workplace protections as everyone else,” Almeida said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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