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More firms offering benefits to gay workers, group says

WASHINGTON—Gay and transgender workers were more likely than ever to receive domestic-partner health benefits last year, and more companies are adopting nondiscrimination policies to protect them, a leading gay-activist group reported Monday.

But gays' workplace gains have slowed since the `90s, according to figures that the group, the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, compiled for its annual "State of the Workplace" report. That's probably because of the rising costs of health benefits. Social conservatives said their resistance to such efforts was a factor.

Fortune 500 companies were most likely to protect gay and transgender workers, according to the survey. It found that 82 percent of them include sexual orientation in their written nondiscrimination policies. The number that protected transsexuals grew from three to 51 from 2000 to 2004. The number that offered domestic-partner benefits grew almost 10 percent from 2003 to 2004, from 199 to 216.

Overall, the report said, 8,250 U.S. companies offered some form of domestic-partner health benefits in 2004, compared with 7,324 in 2003.

Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group that claims 600,000 members, said workplace nondiscrimination policies and health benefits for all domestic partners were good business.

"It's not only the right thing to do but it's good for the bottom line," Solmonese said. "It's time for business leaders to follow their own favorite mantra: What's good for business is good for America."

Social conservative groups, such as the American Family Association, disagree. It has called for boycotting The Walt Disney Co. of Burbank, Calif., and Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich., for their support of gays in the workplace.

The group announced Monday, however, after meeting with a group of Ford dealers, that it would postpone action against the automaker until December.

Don Wildmon, the president of the American Family Association, said in an interview that he found the gay-rights group's findings unsurprising

"The homosexual and lesbian and bisexual and transgender movement has made great strides in getting the attention of corporate America and getting them to do what they want them to do," Wildmon said.

"These groups have done a great job of incorporating their cause with traditional minority groups, " he continued. The crucial difference, he added, was that gays and transsexuals are "the only minority which is based on sexual behavior."

The rate at which companies adopt nondiscrimination policies and domestic-partner benefits has slowed since the 1990s, however.

From 1995 to 1999, for example, the number of U.S. employers that offered domestic-partner health benefits grew nearly tenfold, from 398 to 3,475. From 2000 to 2004, the number roughly doubled, from 4,269 to 8,250.

The Human Rights Campaign's survey was based on public records and information provided voluntarily by companies and their workers.

From those materials, the group created a Corporate Equality Index. Fifty-six companies earned perfect scores, among them Apple Computer Inc., Cargill Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Ford, Hewlett-Packard Co., Nike Inc., PepsiCo Inc. and Pfizer Inc.

To read the Human Rights Campaign's "State of the Workplace" report online, go to www.hrc.org and click on "Download the Report" under the headline "New HRC Report Reveals Corporate America Leading in Protecting Gay and Transgender Employees."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): GAY WORKER RIGHTS

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