Jeri Muoio’s first commission meeting as mayor has few items on it, but the commission just passed a piece of legislation that the county’s Human Rights Council is hailing as a major landmark for gay and lesbian rights.
West Palm Beach became the first city in the county to extend family sick leave to domestic partners. Currently, a heterosexual employee can take up to 12 weeks off if his or her spouse or partner has a major illness. In West Palm Beach, that will now be extended to gay and lesbian couples, as well as heterosexual non-married couples who have registered with the city as being domestic partners.
“We’re on mission this year with the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council to address the problems with the family medical leave act,” said Rand Hoch, founder of the human rights council.
“Here in Florida, we know there’s not going to be any action taken by this (state) legislature in the next two years, and even though we have support on the national level from Congressman Deutch and Congressman Hastings, it’s not going to happen on the federal level in the next two years either. That means activist groups here in Palm Beach County and throughout Florida have to work with every single employer so we can educate them in the gap here.”
Hoch said his organization is working with Delray Beach, Wellington and Palm Beach County to pass similar legislation.
“As usual, with West Palm Beach being probably the city south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi that has the most pro-non traditional family policies anywhere in America, we went to the city first on this one.”
West Palm Beach spokesman Chase Scott said it won’t come at a cost to the city. Workers will still have to burn through their vacation and sick time before taking the extended leave, which will be unpaid although the workers will receive benefits during this time. Their jobs will remain open while they are on leave, and they can return at full salary.
While Muoio campaigned on being a champion for gay and lesbian rights, Hoch said it’s more of a coincidence that this item will be passed at Muoio’s first commission meeting as mayor.
“Lois (Frankel) has been working on this and Lois has been great on these issues all along,” Hoch said. “When Jeri first came on board (as commissioner) she was the one who got COBRA benefits extended to domestic partners, which was a similar situation. I thought this would come up as one of Lois’ last hurrahs so to speak, because she’s done so much for the community. But it had to go through the process and it just came out that the date they could put on the calendar was the date of Jeri’s first meeting. We’re thrilled, we would would have been thrilled with Lois, we’re thrilled with Jeri and it really does help us a lot. I think Jeri is pretty proud to be able to do this at her first meeting.”
Currently, 40 West Palm Beach employees are registered as living in a domestic partnership, with the numbers closely split between gay and straight couples. Muoio said West Palm Beach needs to be at the forefront of these issues.
“We are the largest city (in the county) and we have the most employees,” Muoio said. “It’s appropriate that we do this.”
On the federal and state level, many activist groups are working just to get basic health benefits to gay couples. According to Hoch, West Palm Beach was the first city in the state to give health benefits to domestic partners in 1992.
“We’ve been at this for a while,” Hoch said. “Now we’re just picking up the pieces.”