BY GENE JOHNSON
SEATTLE -- A day after being sued by legally married, gay engineers, the nation's largest freight rail carriers announced they will provide health care benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF Railway Co., read the statement Wednesday from the National Railway Labor Conference to The Associated Press. The conference represents the railroad companies in dealings with labor groups, lawmakers and courts.
Same-sex spouses will be eligible for dependent health care coverage starting Jan. 1, the statement said. "While this it is not a benefit required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, the railroads agreed with labor to provide the benefit in light of recent changes allowing same sex couples to access same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples," the conference said.
Two BNSF engineers in Washington state, one man and one woman, sued the company Tuesday over its refusal to provide benefits to their spouses. The federal 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.
A lawyer for the couples, Cleveland Stockmeyer, disagreed with the conference's statement that benefits for same-sex spouses aren't required by law or by collective bargaining. The company's health plan describes eligible dependents as "your husband or wife," without excluding same-sex spouses, he argued.