Days before same-sex marriage is due to become legal in Florida, Publix has told employees that gay and lesbian couples legally married elsewhere will be eligible for group health and other insurance beginning Feb. 1.
"Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, Publix is expanding spouse coverage for its health, dental and vision benefit plans to associates who are married in any state where same-sex marriages are legal, regardless of the associates' state of residence," reads an internal memo from the supermarket company's corporate communications department. "Publix's benefit plans offer coverage to legal spouses, and until recently, the states in which Publix operates did not recognize same-sex marriages as legal unions."
Until now, Publix did not offer insurance benefits for same-sex couples, legally married or not. "The majority of the total Fortune 500 -- 66 percent -- offer equivalent medical benefits between spouses and partners," according to the nation's leading LGBT-rights lobbying group, Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.
Publix, based in Lakeland, owns 1,095 grocery stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Thirty-five states, plus the District of Columbia, recognize same-sex marriage, including North Carolina, where it became legal in October, and South Carolina, where it became legal in November.
Publix said that there will be a
special 30-day enrollment period for same-sex married employees beginning Jan. 1. Thirty days later, same-sex spouses will receive the same insurance benefits as opposite-sex spouses. To sign up, employees must provide certified marriage certificates, universal enrollment forms and declare whether they or spouses use tobacco products, according to a corporate human-resources worker.
"This is huge news," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a leading statewide LGBT-rights groups. "Publix is an iconic brand as associated with Florida as beaches and sunshine. This step recognizes that marriage is coming and acknowledges the impossibility of maintaining separate and unequal laws in some parts of our state and nation.
"The timing of this announcement comes as dozens of businesses are weighing in calling for an end to the marriage ban."
National companies including Target, Amazon.com, Delta and Marriott have filed friends-of-the-court briefs calling for an end to Florida's gay marriage ban.
In 2008, 62 percent of Florida voters approved amending the Florida Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
Same-sex marriage is likely to become legal in Florida on Jan. 6, when a stay expires in the state's federal case overseen by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Tallahassee. The attorney general's defense in the case cited the 2008 vote and said the judge should respect the will of the state's voters.
On Aug. 21, Hinkle declared Florida's gay marriage ban unconstitutional, as have circuit judges in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta declined to extend Hinkle's stay, which, when it expires Monday night, will allow same-sex marriages to be licensed and recognized in Florida.
After it appeared gay marriage will become legal in Florida on Jan. 6, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Osceola County Clerk Armando Ramirez and Circuit Court Judge Bob LeBlanc said they would perform same-sex marriages in Central Florida.
More lawsuits filed
On Tuesday, the conservative Orlando-based Florida Family Association sued all three for "their intentions to defy Florida law and either issue same-sex marriage licenses or officiate over same-sex marriage ceremonies on or after January 6, 2015."
A recommendation from the law firm Greenberg Traurig to the state clerks' association has caused confusion throughout Florida as to who must abide by Hinkle's order. The Washington County clerk, named in the federal suit, last week asked Hinkle for clarification. The judge then ordered other defendants in the case, and Bondi, to respond to him by the end of the day on Monday.
About 9:30 p.m. Monday, Bondi filed a response:
"This Court is best situated to determine the reach of its own order," Bondi wrote on behalf of the secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services, a defendant in the case.
David Weinstein, a former assistant Miami-Dade state attorney and assistant U.S. attorney, now in private practice and not involved in the case, describes Bondi's response "a nice chess move by the AG."
"We all know that Bondi opposes the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses and while she stated publicly that she'll abide by the Supreme Court's decision denying the extension of the stay, she's attempting to get Judge Hinkle to issue a new order so that she can appeal that order to the 11th Circuit," Weinstein said.
"If the order he issues contains any new issue that hasn't been addressed, she's entitled to appeal that new order," Weinstein said. "It's discretionary, but she's entitled to ask the court to issue a stay of the enforcement of the new order, just as she did with enforcement of the judge's original order back in August."