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Washington (State)

Two same-sex couples sue BNSF Railway over denied health benefits

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

SEATTLE — 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.

Ted S. Warren, APMichael Hall (left), a locomotive engineer, is suing BNSF Railway, saying his husband Eli (right) has repeatedly been denied health benefits even though same-sex marriage is legal in Washington state.

Ted S. Warren, AP
Michael Hall (left), a locomotive engineer, is suing BNSF Railway, saying his husband Eli (right) has repeatedly been denied health benefits even though same-sex marriage is legal in Washington state.

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 organizati ons,” 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 ra ilroads 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 st ate, 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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18 more reader comments:

  1. More power to ‘em. Please keep us updated on this case. Thx.

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 2:31am
  2. Good

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 2:31am
  3. Good!

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 2:32am
  4. You rock! KEEP IT UP

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 2:33am
  5. I don’t get why it’s illegal for a company to deny health benefits to a married couple, based on their race. But yet it’s perfectly legal to deny health benefits to a married couple based on their sexuality?

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 2:45am
  6. BRAVO….!!!!!!

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 2:51am
  7. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 3:11am
  8. Pssst!!!! Hetero-normative people, yeah, you guys who value “tradition”. I got a little inside info for you, the road to equality has two paths! ONE: The easy, respectful, civilized way…you recognize the futility of your attempts to oppress people and either get on the bandwagon of the American promise of EQUALITY, or TWO: We RUN YOUR ASSES OVER and bog you down in expensive lawsuits, messy protests, awkward press conferences and eventually, you slink away all butt hurt and feeling like losers. We’d rather you be team players so nobody has to get hurt SO, think about how you want to do this because WE can do this ALL DAY! Don’t think I’ve got anything to back this up? Look up the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education, Women’s suffrage, Loving v. Virginia, President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the Armed Forces, U.S. v. Windsor (DOMA), Standing Bear v. Crook, the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, the 14th and 15th Amendments, the list goes on.

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 3:19am
  9. Disgraceful, BNSF!! Shame on you.

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 4:01am
  10. Please keep me posted and sending you God’s speed with love and understanding.

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 4:01am
  11. Get ‘em!

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 7:02am
  12. I have equal value in both parties. I’m gay and I’m a railfan. I feel like I’ve become the middle man between two of my friends who I adore who are now at each other’s throats. I don’t like being the middle man, it’s makes me feel really uneasy.

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 8:24am
  13. That’s the railroad for ya…

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 9:29am
  14. right on

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 2:07pm
  15. YOU GO GUYS!!!!

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 4:42pm
  16. The only way we will ever have full EQUAL rights is to fight for those rights! Never give up never compromise!

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 5:19pm
  17. Way to go Michael & Elijah. Love ya both.

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 6:39pm
  18. Go get em

    Posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 8:56pm