Officials from the Town of Palm Beach and the City of Boca Raton have been scrambling recently, trying to justify why their municipalities still do not provide the same family benefits to their gay and lesbian employees in domestic partnerships as they provide to married employees.
Sound familiar? It should.
For more than 15 years, the Village of Wellington did not provide equal protections and equal family benefits to its gay and lesbian employees. Policies did not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and only married employees were entitled to family benefits such as health insurance coverage, sick leave and bereavement leave.
However, in 2010, things quickly began to change. That year, the Gay Polo League announced it would hold its first international polo tournament in Wellington. Sensing a great opportunity, the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council asked the village to amend its employment policies to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council is a nonprofit organization, dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. It has been the prime mover for domestic partnership benefits throughout Palm Beach County for more than two decades.
Prior to the gay polo tournament, Village Manager Paul Schofield sent the council a letter stating that the policies would not be changed as requested. Word spread of the incredible success of the gay polo tournament in the polo and equestrian media worldwide. Many of the articles mentioned that while Wellington welcomed gay polo, it did not provide equal protection and benefits to its gay and lesbian employees.
In light of this international publicity, the village revisited the request made by the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council and promptly revised its nondiscrimination policies to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. “It is our goal to do the right thing by all of the people who work for Wellington,” Schofield told the South Florida Gay News.
Schofield also informed the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council that the village would look into offering equal family benefits, including health insurance to employees with domestic partners. Seeking to assist, equestrian promoter Mason Phelps designated the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council as a financial beneficiary of the upcoming gay polo tournament.
On stage at the Holiday HorseFest in West Palm Beach, Phelps introduced me to then-mayor Darell Bowen so that we could discuss the importance of domestic partnership benefits. Bowen immediately understood the inequities and became a strong advocate of equal family benefits for all Wellington employees.
At the 2011 gay polo tournament, Bowen publicly pledged to have Wellington promptly implement domestic partnership benefits. “We need to recognize all of the family relationships that make up Wellington,” Bowen told the Town-Crier.
Within weeks, the Wellington Village Council adopted comprehensive policy changes prepared by Schofield’s staff implementing the full range of domestic partnership benefits, including health/dental/vision insurance, extended family medical leave, and bereavement leave. As a result, the Village of Wellington continues to hold its well-deserved reputation as a great workplace.
The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council continues to hold Wellington out as a model to be used by other municipalities. Now it remains to be seen if other municipalities would follow Wellington’s lead.
Judge Rand Hoch (retired)
President & Founder
Palm Beach County
Human Rights Council