The Bexar County Commissioners Court was the scene Tuesday of the latest advance in inclusiveness for LGBT employees. With very little fanfare, the Commissioners Court unanimously passed a resolution adding a “Plus One Qualifying Adult” option to the county’s benefits package. The move, in effect, extends benefits to same-sex couples while skirting legal challenges stemming from a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Similar bans have been struck down in other states, and the Texas law also is being challenged. For the time being, however, local officials have adopted a strategy used elsewhere to extend domestic partnership benefits to LGBT employees.
Coincidentally, county officials also began staff diversity training with a pilot class on Monday, that aims to create a more inclusive culture within the County.
Compared with the packed City Council chambers two years ago when San Antonio added domestic partnership benefits, Tuesday’s consideration was short and to the point. With no opposition present and no one signed up to speak on the matter, the resolution passed without debate. Commissioners instructed County Manager David Smith to adjust the benefits program as soon as possible.
Bexar County has become the third jurisdiction in Texas to offer such benefits to employees following an opinion by the Texas Attorney General’s office last year approving such programs. That opinion, resulting from an inquiry by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), held that domestic partnership benefits violated Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage. But the opinion also provided that jurisdictions could offer benefits under the “Plus One” option, provided the qualification for benefits does not infer a domestic partnership.
The modifications are modeled after similar programs passed last year by El Paso County and the Austin ISD, including restrictions which exclude relatives, renters, boarders, tenants or employees of the County Employee. A “Plus One” person, either of the same or opposite sex, would qualify provided they have resided with the employee for at least one year, are 18 years or older, and that the two people are financially interdependent. The last criteria must be documented through one of five different joint financial arrangements.
“It’s a program that’s been initiated in the private sector. We do our best to attract top-notch employees and we really are not concerned what their lifestyle might be, as long as they do a good job for the County,” said Judge Nelson Wolff, introducing the resolution before the Commission. “It would also encourage the Board of Directors of the Bexar County Hospital District to do likewise.”
Precinct 3 Commissioner Kevin Wolff, looking to possibly expand the inclusion, offered an amendment to eliminate that section of the resolution. Citing his own experience with his mother, which he had a financial interdependence with, Wolff asked if the family exclusions could be eliminated. “She lived with Sandy and I for the last two years of her life. We were financially interdependent,” said Wolff. “Why exclude any group as long as they are meeting the financial obligations of the resolution.”
After much discussion, the Court decided to pass the resolution as written and explore the addition of other groups, especially other family members under the benefits program. Currently, most “Plus One” packages carry the same exclusions as El Paso County and Austin ISD. Take, for example, the University of Michigan’s program, which follows a similar exclusionary approach.
Judge Wolff also acknowledged Winslow Swart, Chief Inspiration Officer of Winslow Consulting, who conducted diversity training with the pilot class on Monday. The program, initiated by the County’s Human Resources department, kicked off Monday with a pilot group of 36 County employees from a cross-section of departments. Deputies, social workers, office workers, and administrators were all a part of the class, which was optional for employees and had a waiting list.
Swart said the program helps people to identify when they’ve been bullied or have bullied people in the past. “We bring up a lot of sacred cows and we tip some of them over, discussing topics that were once considered to be taboo,” said Swart.
Talking about the program’s objectives, Swart said it enabled people to become a part of the conversation where they might have been excluded in the past, either by having to hide their orientation or purposefully excluded by others. “When people can’t even be real about who they are, not being able to be that person that has a personal life outside the workplace, it creates a very uncomfortable and squelched working environment,” he said.
The two initiatives seem to be linked, but the time was actually coincidence. However, having diversity training within the County could help employees who might want to take advantage of the benefits feel more comfortable about signing up. Swart said a few people in his class realized they might need the training, and were considered “fence sitters” with regards to diversity.
While much of the training focused on LGBT issues, other areas of diversity were addressed, such as race, gender, and generational topics. At the end of the class, almost all acknowledged the need for the training, giving the class high marks, in terms of meeting objectives of expanding mindsets.
But what may not be immediately evident from the training was how it might begin to drive a deeper culture of innovation within the County. According to a recent article in Inc. Magazine, diversity seems to drive serial innovation. “CTI research shows that teams with at least one member who brings an innate understanding of the ‘pints of pain’(unmet needs) of the target market (consumer/client), the entire team is as much as 158 percent more likely to understand that target.”
Underlying the training, Swart felt this could lead to improvements in county services through a commitment of shared sets of goals and working together as a team. “On a bigger picture, a city, a county, a company that values and embraces diversity doesn’t only attract those diverse ones, they attract those ones that want to know their diverse ideas are being valued,” said Swart. “Innovators want to work in a place that doesn’t squelch anything.”
So, what may have started as a desire to provide benefits for a diverse employee population could help create an environment where diversity is embraced and diverse, innovative ideas are encouraged, leading to improvements in County services.
Randy Bear is a 20-plus years San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic and political activities, including work with San Antonio Sports, KLRN, Keep San Antonio Beautiful, Fiesta San Antonio, and a brief period serving on the staff of former City Councilman Reed Williams.