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HR News, 5/3/01: 'Sex Change' Benefits Set Company Apart</i>
'Sex Change' Benefit Sets Companies Apart

By Karyn-Siobhan Robinson

Related Resources

Transgender Issues in the Workplace

Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, Inc

May 3 -- This week, San Francisco became the first municipality in the nation to provide medical benefit coverage for employees undergoing gender reassignment. The decision sparked controversy, but what many HR professionals didn't realize is that a few companies already have been offering the benefit—quietly—to their employees.

Some companies that provide medical benefits for employees undergoing gender reassignment choose not to publicize the benefit. Avaya, a spin-off company of Lucent Technologies, is different. Avaya proudly offers the coverage to its employees.

Mary Ann Horton is a transgendered tech manager with Avaya in Columbus, Ohio. She asked if any of the costs associated with gender reassignment were covered under her company's health plan. "The answer was 'of course,'" said Horton.

"We have . . . a very progressive policy, regarding diversity in general, and specifically regarding the g/l/b/t (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered) community," said Suellen Roth, Avaya's vice president of diversity, policy and retention. Roth said that on the first day of work every employee receives a copy of the company's policy statement, which expressly prohibits discrimination based on "sexual orientation and gender expression."

"Along with that go all the accompanying responsibilities associated with the treatment of people who are transgendered in the workplace," said Roth. "For those who choose to go through surgery, we've developed a health plan that is quite robust and addresses health issues that are unique to the g/l/b/t community."

"What this means to me," said Horton, "is that I'm working for an employer that values all employees and that makes me feel good." Transitioning

Horton said that the costs associated with transitioning are not just those related to the actual surgery. Psychological counseling is required in order to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Hormone treatments are one of the biggest expenses, but follow-up doctor's office visits and medical care are also necessary. "There are also situations where people cannot get treated for non-transition-related problems," Horton pointed out.

Avaya's Roth emphasized that the company's benefits department was flexible when it came to designing a benefits plan for the company's employees. She said that there had to be "a lot of options" for the company's diverse workforce, taking special care to highlight Avaya's "flexibility" in benefit package choices.

Furthermore, Roth pointed out that the benefit was not excessively expensive for Avaya to provide.

Anybody Else Offering This?

When asked about the prevalence of this benefit, a representative from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) said that he had never heard of it. Grant Lukenbill publishes glvReports, an index that rates Fortune 500 companies on their commitment to equality for g/l/b/t individuals. Lukenbill said that he was unaware of companies—not focused on the g/l/b/t community—that covered the costs of gender reassignment.

"I wonder what the implications are for the future," said Brenda Franklin, SPHR, secretary of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) Compensation and Benefits Committee. "I think most employers are illiterate about what the costs are and what the whole regimen is." Franklin also serves on the benefits subcommittee and is human resource manager with Team Industries in Audubon, Minn. She wondered if HR professionals had enough information about the procedure to make a decision about offering the benefit or not.

"We have a real limited knowledge of this issue," Franklin said. "We really don't know what it costs—the hormonal regimen, the psychological counseling as well as the surgery and any other follow up costs. I think information will be key."

Things appear to be far more of a challenge until "you actually face them and deal with them," said Roth about the apprehension many HR professionals express about dealing with the unique issues of transgendered employees. "The fact is that many things—before we face them—seem to be a challenge and you imagine difficulty, but in reality [those problems] don't materialize."

"The simplest answers are the easiest," concurred Horton. "We don't have a lot of complicated rules and expectations. Simplicity is good: we don't discriminate, we cover medically necessary procedures, use the bathroom that matches how you present . . . ."

Avaya's affinity group for g/l/b/t employees was instrumental in helping the company realize the need for the benefit and with the ultimate decision to cover the costs associated with transitioning from one sex to the other. The affinity group collected information and supporting data for Avaya's benefits department. "They made us aware of changes in the environment," said Roth.

"We don't have a lot of complicated rules," said Horton again. "It just works."

Why Pay?

People incorrectly assume that the costs associated with sex reassignment are cosmetic or elective, said Rosalyne Blumenstein, MSW, director of the Gender Identity Project, one of six social services within the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City.

"[It] is, at present, a mental/psychological diagnosis," said Blumenstein. The psychiatric diagnosis is "gender dysphoria," she said. "People get diagnosed as gender dysphoric, and gender realignment is . . . a component of that treatment."

"We see this as a good move, it's a logical extension of what we have been working for—which is equal treatment and equal benefits in the workplace for all g/l/b/t Americans," said Kim Mills, education director with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Karyn-Siobhan Robinson is staff writer for HR News Online.

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