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Same-sex couples sue railroad over denial of health care benefits

Mikey Hall and his husband, Eli, show reporters a couple of their marriage certificate during a news conference to announce a lawsuit against Mikey Hall's employer, Burlington Northern-Santa Fee, for failure to provide health care benefits to Eli. (Tim Haeck/KIRO Radio)
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UPDATED Wed, Dec. 4, 2013:

The nation’s largest freight rail carriers announced Wednesday they will provide health care benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees, one day after legally married, gay engineers filed a federal lawsuit in Seattle.

Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF Railway Co., read the statement from the National Railway Labor Conference to The Associated Press. The conference represents the railroad companies in dealings with labor groups, lawmakers and courts.

Same-sex spouses will be eligible for dependent health care coverage starting Jan. 1, the statement said.

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Two railroad workers are going to federal court in Seattle to force their employer to provide health care benefits to their same sex spouses.

Instead of a joyous time, 2013 has been a trying year for locomotive engineer Mikey Hall.

“I married the love of my life, Eli, on January 21st, 2013.”

Shortly after that, Hall, 30, went to his employer, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad, seeking health benfits for his new husband, Eli. He sent the railroad a copy of their marriage certificate. The railroad declined benefits and referred him to the company handbook.

“I looked at the plan, it clearly stated an eligible dependent is a husband or wife,” said Hall. “Eli is my legal husband.”

The legal filing in U.S. District Court in Seattle is on behalf of Mikey and Eli Hall and Amie Garrand, a conductor living in Vancouver, and her wife, Carol.

A spokesman for Burlington Northern, Gus Melonas, would not comment on the specific legal claim but in a statement said that “benefits are available to same sex spouses of BNSF salaried employees if they were married in a state where such marriage is recognized.”

The statement indicates that the denial of benefits is a union issue, since the current contract with the railroad workers was adopted before Washington approved same-sex marriage.

“In terms of employees covered by collective bargaining agreements, BNSF does not have the ability to unilaterally expand coverage that was negotiated through multi-employer collective bargaining with rail-labor organizations,” said Melonas.

But Hall’s Seattle attorney Cleveland Stockmeyer said this has nothing to do with collective bargaining, adding the timing of the union agreement is irrelevant. He said this is pay discrimination, plain and simple.

“You can’t bargain your way out of the protection of the anti-discrimination laws.”

Hall’s husband, Elijah Hall, admitted he sent an e-mail to BNSF management in July, chastising the company for its decision to deny benefits, declaring: “SHAME, SHAME, SHAME on you.” Hall claimed that the couple later received a phone call from a BNSF manager that he considered threatening. In it, the caller told Hall that if he wanted to take on the railroad, it would be a “long and bumpy” fight.

Hall also claimed that Burlington Northern told them that marriage is between a man and a woman.

“I told them not in Washington state,” said Hall. “They still said no.”

“This is a marriage of one “Mikey” and one “Eli,” said Stockmeyer. “There’s also a marriage of one “Carol” and one “Ami” and Burlington Northern is no one to judge who is married and who is not married.”

Attorney Stockmeyer says the combined benefits denied the two couples amounts to about $100,000, so far, including childbirth bills of about $25,000 for Carol and Amie. The federal complaint is filed under the Equal Pay Act, claiming the couples are being denied rightful benefits now that same-sex marriage is legal in Washington.

Similar to a class action lawsuit, this individual and collective complaint invites others with the same issue to join the discrimination claim against Burlington Northern.

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