Volume 74, Number 8 | June 23 - 29, 2004

A special Villager supplement,

Council set to override veto on equal-benefits bill

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

Gays and lesbians living in New York City are hopeful that City Councilmembers will override the mayor’s veto of a new law that would guarantee the partners of city contractors’ employees the same benefits as those of married workers.

Introduced in 2003 and known as Dominique’s Law, the legislation would secure equivalent rights such as health insurance, family-benefit leave and bereavement leave for same-sex partners of those employed by vendors and contractors who do business of $100,000 or more with the city. The equal-benefits bill was named after Dominique Ghossein, a deceased New York lawyer whose partner, Leslie Thrope, was denied medical leave to care for Ghossein and paid over $9,000 for her health benefits.

City councilmembers passed the law early last month by a vote of 45 to 5, but Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the bill within the allotted 30 days. Now, councilmembers will vote on the bill once again June 28. “They will definitely have enough votes to override it,” said Thrope, whose employer, SEIU 32B-J Legal Fund, a city contractor, denied her paid leave to spend time with Ghossein, who was dying of cancer.

Thrope and Ghossein had lived together as partners for more than 10 years and were raising a 5-year-old daughter, Sadie, at the time of Ghossein’s death. “You’re dealing with someone who is very seriously ill and you’re told you have to work,” said Thrope, who is also a lawyer. “As my daughter explained to a playmate, ‘They’re naming a law so they can’t do this to other people.’ ”

When Ghossein was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1997 and underwent a hysterectomy, Thrope’s employer granted Thrope two weeks of family medical leave without a problem, she said. In 2000 when a follow-up CAT scan found tumors in Ghossein’s lungs and in 2002 in her brain, Thrope once again requested and received time off to spend with her partner, this time three months from May to August 2002.

But when Thrope returned in August and realized that Ghossein would no longer be able to work, she asked management for medical leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, and was denied. F.M.L.A. would have been granted to a married employee in the same situation, said Thrope. “Dominique didn’t know how much time she had and wanted to spend that time with me,” she said.

Instead, her company suggested Thrope take vacation and sick-leave time, and she spent two of Ghossein’s last three weeks fighting her employer over lack of coverage. After Ghossein’s death on Oct. 27, 2003, Legal Fund returned Thrope’s unpaid leave, but for her, the gesture was too late. “They can never give me back the last two weeks. That to me was unforgivable.”

Because Legal Fund would not cover Ghossein, Thrope was also forced to pay COBRA benefits for her partner when Ghossein could no longer work — a cost of almost $700 a month. “I felt basically discriminated against,” Thrope said. “I was making $700 less than my colleagues because of my relationship.”

A friend with contacts in the City Council informed members about Thrope’s situation, and during November hearings about equal benefits, the couple’s friend, Jan Holland, gave testimony. Councilmember Robert Jackson suggested naming the bill after Ghossein, and it soon became known as Dominique’s Law.

The bill now includes a special provision for religious organizations that contract with the city that could have a religious objection to recognizing domestic partners. These organizations could choose to provide benefits to “legally domiciled household members,” which would include domestic partners, but would also cover any adult living with the insured party.

Following Ghossein’s death, Thrope quit her job at Legal Fund after a request for time off to grieve was denied. She is hopeful that the new law will help others who find themselves in a similar situation.

As Holland testified, “All families deserve the right to be together during such critical moments without fear of retribution or disparate treatment by their employer. In New York City, where there is a microcosm of diverse families, it should be assured that all are treated the same.”

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