In an unusual moment at Monday's Aflac annual shareholder meeting, a group calling for the firm to offer benefits companywide to partners of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered employees made its voice heard.
Portland, Ore.-based Equity Foundation -- which owns Aflac stock -- asked for and was granted an opportunity to speak about the issue and bring it to a possible vote by the 300 or so shareholders in attendance at the Columbus Museum.
"We believe now is the time for Aflac to provide full domestic partner benefits and make a real difference in the lives of LGBT employees," Susan Baker, an analyst with Trillium Asset Management, said on behalf of the foundation.
"It really sends a message of respect and inclusion and conveys a tangible commitment to the principle that equal work deserves equal pay."
In her three-minute discussion on the topic, Baker pointed out that a number of life and health insurers in the U.S. already offer benefits to partners in a same-sex relationship. They include Aetna, AIG, Chubb, The Hartford, ING North America, Nationwide, State Farm, Humana, Cigna and Wellpoint, she said.
"Companies that extend benefits to same-sex partners have an advantage in recruitment and retention," said Baker, citing the high costs of having to replace staffers who feel the need to leave an employer to work for a firm that does offer such benefits. "By not offering same-sex partner benefits, Aflac is putting itself at a risk for retaining and attracting top talent."
Aflac Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dan Amos, who was running Monday's meeting, then turned to Audrey Boone-Tillman, the firm's executive vice president of Corporate Services, to offer a three-minute rebuttal.
"Aflac does not want to intrude upon or examine the private lives of its employees -- or place itself in the unenviable position of monitoring the personal relationships of its employees -- but we do want to provide benefits to employees who have made the effort to have their relationships recognized in an official way," she said.
Boone-Tillman noted there are seven states and Washington, D.C., that now allow same-sex marriages. Several states also accept registration for domestic partnerships, she said.
"We believe any employee who is married to a same-sex partner (or registered as a domestic partner) in one of those states or in our nation's capital is entitled to Aflac's family health care benefits," she said.
The current policy, the company said, is that any Columbus employees married or registered in a domestic partnership in those states that officially recognize those relationships are eligible to have their loved ones covered here.
The Aflac executive also said the company has a responsibility to keep rising health-care costs under control and that their research shows such costs rose about 10 percent on average among U.S. employers in 2011. Aflac's costs, she said, were up only 4.5 percent.
She also cited research by the company, as well as independent actuarial consultant Milliman, that indicates unregistered domestic partners could create "significant and adverse financial impact with respect to health-care costs."
All employees would have to bear those additional costs, she said.
"Any Aflac employee who marries in one of the states allowing for same-sex marriage or registers their domestic partnership in states which allow for that, we will extend family benefits to," Boone-Tillman said, wrapping up her comments.
Amos then said Equity Foundation's request for a vote counted as a motion. He called for a second to the motion, but no shareholders present raised their hand or replied verbally.
"If there's no second, the proposal dies," Amos said, moving on with the remainder of the annual meeting.
Equity Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 1989 to "eradicate prejudice against sexual and gender minority communities" in the northwest U.S., its website says. It offers funding and support to other organizations that address such issues.