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Faculty may leave University if domestic benefits removed

By Paige Pearcy, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 8, 2011

Scott Dennis does not want to leave Ann Arbor.

In addition to working at the University for 14 years, Dennis grew up in Ann Arbor, his family lives here and his life centers around the city. But now, he is considering moving because of the possibility that new laws would prohibit the University from offering health benefits to domestic partners.

“I love this state. I have a lot of reason to stay here,” said Dennis, a humanities librarian and coordinator at the Hatcher Graduate Library. “Normally (my partner and I) would not have thought of relocating, but I certainly have become open to it given this."

State House Bills 4770 and 4771 aim to bar public entities like the University from providing health benefits to domestic partners. The passage of the bills would cause same-sex partners of public employees to lose their health insurance. The bills passed in the state House on Sept. 15 with a vote of 64-44 and are currently in committee in the state senate.

Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said the University opposes the bills.

“We strongly believe there would be a competitive disadvantage with faculty and staff that we are either trying to recruit or retain,” Wilbanks said. “As a result, we want to be sure that we raise these issues in every way that we can with those who will be voting on or considering the legislation.”

Wilbanks said the University has been working with different legislators to try to stop the bills’ passage. If they do pass, the situation will be re-evaluated.

"We're going to take it one step at a time," Wilbanks said. "Obviously we consider all of our options when evaluating the impact of legislation on the University and then take the appropriate steps when necessary."

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor), who voted against the bills, said he expects the University will take legal measures against the bills if they pass.

“The first negative impact (if the bills pass) is going to be some expensive lawsuits and a lot of public money wasted on lawyers on both sides of that issue,” Irwin said.

If the bills pass in the state Senate and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signs them into law, Dennis's partner, Jim Etzkorn, will lose his health benefits that he receives as Dennis’s dependent.

After working at the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services from 1994 to 2002, Etzkorn started his a psychotherapy practice in 2003 and doesn’t have his own health insurance plan. Etzkorn and Dennis estimate that it would cost Etzkorn a third of his annual income to afford health insurance.

“He’s the kind of person we do not want to drive away from the state. I can say that as a native Michigander,” Dennis said. “He’s the kind of person we want to attract here.”

Thirty years ago, Andries Coetzee, associate professor in the University’s Department of Linguistics, came to the United States from South Africa. Though he has been working at the University for seven years, he has been looking for a new place to move to out of state in case the bills are signed into law.

“I’m at the moment applying for other positions,” Coetzee said, adding that his opportunities are limited due to his narrow field.

Like Dennis, Coetzee's partner would lose health coverage should the bills pass. However, Coetzee's partner is currently in remission from soft tissue sarcoma. Therefore, obtaining independent insurance would be even more difficult.

To advocate against the bills, Dennis and six other University faculty members wrote a letter to Snyder, which was delivered on Oct. 28. They have not yet heard back. In the letter, the faculty members argued that the bills are unconstitutional.

“(The faculty who wrote the letter) believe it’s unconstitutional because the constitution of the state of Michigan grants the University rights to determine ... who works for them and what their compensation will be,” Dennis said. “Clearly, benefits offered through employment are part of compensation.”

Irwin echoed these sentiments, saying he believes the University will choose to continue funding health benefits to domestic partners.

“I think in the end, the University is going to be able to protect their constitutional authority to continue compensating their employees as they see fit," Irwin said.

Dennis and Coetzee believe the bills will have an impact on the University’s ability to hire and retain employees should they pass.

“There are faculty who aren’t LGBT at all themselves, but they want ... an employer that they consider to be humane and accepting of all people,” Dennis said. “People like to feel good about who their employer is and the values their employer supports."


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