SHORTLY BEFORE LEAVING the city council after only one term -- in order to spend more time with her family -- outgoing City Council Member Tina Podlodowski is poised to improve the lot of other gay and lesbian families. After spending the last two years on the city council battling drunks in parks and noisy nightclubs, Podlodowski is now directing her energy toward ensuring that queer employees working for city contractors are offered the same benefit packages as their married co-workers.

Podlodowski championed other gay rights issues during her one term. She helped pass legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, and strengthened the city's anti-gay discrimination laws. But these were largely symbolic moves, with little real impact on the daily lives of most gays and lesbians. In contrast, Podlodowski's Equal Benefits Ordinance, introduced last month and coming to a crucial council vote November 22, would directly impact hundreds of gays and lesbians working for city contractors.

The ordinance, if passed, would mandate that city contractors currently offering health insurance to employees' heterosexual spouses extend those same benefits to domestic partners. To be eligible, a couple -- gay or straight -- must register their domestic partnership with the city clerk's office. After presenting their city certificates to their employers, queer workers would automatically qualify for family medical or bereavement leave, and their partners would qualify for the same health insurance benefits extended to the married partners of other employees.

With five council members co-sponsoring the bill, it's almost sure to pass -- much to the dismay of The Seattle Times. In an unsigned op-ed headlined "Domestic-partner rules would simply go too far," The Seattle Times editorial board pointed out that equal benefits for gays and lesbians might actually -- gasp! -- cost someone, somewhere some money. While both Seattle dailies cheer on largely symbolic gay rights laws -- like Podlodowski's other gay rights measures, or the ill-advised, ill-fated I-677, which would have prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation -- The Seattle Times apparently draws the line at a law that would, if passed, tangibly benefit gays and lesbians living and working in Seattle. "The sentiments behind extending domestic partnership benefits are grounded in fairness," concluded the Times, "but penalizing every mom-and-pop business that doesn't yet share the city's values is going too far." Apparently no one at the Times is aware that civil rights laws are designed to penalize businesses that discriminate.

Really, Podlodowski's ordinance is a political no-brainer. A similar law withstood legal challenges in San Francisco, and a wave of private reforms have already granted equal benefits to unmarried couples in many workplaces locally and around the country. Major employers like Microsoft, Safeco, and Bank of America already offer benefits to employees' domestic partners.

When asked why she waited so long to introduce this legislation, Podlodowski cites the legal rigmarole that bogged down the San Francisco law. "The prudent thing to do was to see where the law was going," Podlodowski said. The San Francisco law, which passed in 1997, survived three lawsuits.

While a positive development, the ordinance is not particularly far-reaching. Of the more than 700 city contractors, it will affect only those that already give spousal benefits -- probably less than half, judging from San Francisco's calculations. And companies doing business with the city whose contracts are not handled by Seattle's Contracting Services Department are exempt under Podlodowski's ordinance. Concessionaires at the Seattle Aquarium and the Woodland Park Zoo, for example, won't have to change their policies until the city council decides whether to expand the law, one year down the line.

Regardless, prominent gays and lesbians have responded enthusiastically to Podlodowski's plan. "This is a giant step forward in terms of equal benefits for equal work," says State Representative Ed Murray -- especially compared with what he's up against in Olympia. "I'm trying to get the legislature to grant sick and bereavement leave [to its staff]," he says. "We're stuck in the Neolithic period in terms of this debate on the state level."

Seattle, however, isn't Olympia, and Podlodowski's waning-days legislation -- rather than being heralded as a show-stopper -- is being viewed as a basic practical step.

Steven Parrish, president of the Gay and Lesbian Greater Seattle Business Association, says, "I think it will help; I don't think it will hurt. This is one gradual step at the city level." Parrish himself says his health insurer won't cover the domestic partners of employees of his small business. "I don't know of a single insurer in the state that covers domestic partners," he says. He's hopeful the new ordinance will show insurers that there's a market here.

Support The Stranger