Same-sex couple sues BNSF over health benefits

Same-sex couple sues BNSF over health benefits
Michael and Eli Hall, right, hold their marriage license certificate, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 as they talk to reporters in Seattle. Michael Hall, a locomotive engineer, is suing BNSF Railway, saying his husband Eli has repeatedly been denied health benefits even though gay marriage is legal in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SEATTLE (AP) — Two workers sued one of the nation's largest rail companies Tuesday, saying their same-sex spouses have repeatedly been denied health benefits even though voters in Washington state legalized gay marriage last year.

The lawsuit against BNSF Railway, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges the company refused to add the spouses of locomotive engineer Michael Hall, of Pierce County, and conductor Amie Garrand, of Vancouver, to their plans.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit's specifics. But he said the company, owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc., offers benefits to the same-sex spouses of salaried employees, as opposed to those covered by collective bargaining agreements.

"In terms of employees covered by collective bargaining agreements, BNSF does not have the ability to unilaterally expand coverage that was negotiated through multi-employer collective bargaining with rail labor organizations," Melonas said, reading a statement. "Such discussions have been ongoing with the various representatives of the parties involved."

However, it wasn't clear why such discussions were necessary. An excerpt of health plan at issue, included as an exhibit to the lawsuit, says the husbands and wives of covered employees are dependents eligible for coverage. It makes no reference to whether those husbands and wives must be the opposite sex of the employee, and the company didn't immediately respond to an email asking why same-sex spouses wouldn't be covered under that language.

Hall and Garrand both said they made repeated requests over several months, only to be met with denials and, in Hall's case, an intimidating phone call from a supervisor.

"BNSF has no business overriding the vote we had here to make same sex marriage legal," Cleveland Stockmeyer, a lawyer for the couples, said in a news release. "Who are they to judge? BNSF should stick to running railroads and stop telling gays or lesbian couples who are legally married that they are not."

The lawsuit, which alleges violations of the federal Equal Pay Act, seeks class-action status on behalf of any other BNSF employees who may have been denied benefits for their same-sex spouses in a legally recognized marriage. It says the same-sex spouses have been denied benefits provided routinely to those of opposite sex.

"I was told many times by BNSF, 'marriage is one man, one woman,'" Hall said. "I told them, 'Not in Washington state.' They still told me no."

Hall, 30, has worked for BNSF for three years. He drives mile-long freight trains from the Seattle area to Pasco, Vancouver, and back to Seattle. His husband, Elijah Hall Uber, has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and going without health coverage for him has deprived the couple of $2,400 per month in coverage of medication costs, the lawsuit said. Elijah Hall Uber has found coverage through Washington state, but that will run out soon.

"I take medications I have to take every day just to survive," Hall Uber said. "I don't know if I'm going to have insurance from one month to the next."

Amie Garrand, a BNSF employee for 12 years, drives trains in southwest Washington. She lost out on coverage for her wife, Carol Garrand, who gave birth to a son this year, the lawsuit said.

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