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Employment discrimination and job benefits will continue to be a battleground for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, despite the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality, a consultant on workplace policy said Friday.

Bob Witeck, a consultant on LGBT issues in the workplace, whose clients include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said national corporations have, for the most part, already incorporated same-sex health benefits and anti-bias policies. He expects that small or midsize businesses will have more difficulty navigating this new territory.

"If you can still be fired for being gay ... marriage might be one of those facts that can get you in trouble," he said.

Fayetteville and Little Rock have ordinances that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for their employees. Eureka Springs is the only city in the state with an ordinance that protects LGBT people from discrimination in both the public and private workplace.

There is no state law extending protection. Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed Act 137, which bars local governments from adopting rules or policies that create "a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law." The law takes effect in July.

Act 137 says the ban "does not apply to a rule or policy that pertains only to the employees of a county, municipality, or other political subdivision."

The Supreme Court decision Friday that ends bans on same-sex marriage is already prompting Arkansas employers to offer health benefits to same-sex spouses of employees.

Baptist Health offers health benefits to couples who can prove they are legally married, said Mark Lowman, vice president of strategic development at Baptist Health. Before the Supreme Court decision, even if an LGBT couple moved to Arkansas with a marriage license from another state, they would not qualify for health benefits.

"The ruling clarified what legally married is," he said. "We totally intend to comply with that ruling."

Most major companies in the state already have anti-discrimination policies and provide equal benefits for LGBT employees.

Wal-Mart, the country's largest retailer and biggest employer, has emerged as one of the biggest corporate champions of LGBT rights.

For its full-time U.S. employees, the company began extending benefits to same-sex couples in 2014. Couples who qualify "are those living together in an ongoing, exclusive committed relationship -- similar to marriage -- for at least 12 months," the company said when it announced the policy in August 2013.

Wal-Mart ranked as one of the top Fortune 500 companies in its treatment of LGBT workers, according to an index by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation compiled last year.

Earlier this year Wal-Mart spoke out against House Bill 1228 in Arkansas, expressing concern that it could lead to bias against those in the LGBT community.

The company issued a statement in opposition of the bill and ultimately helped persuade Gov. Asa Hutchinson to call for a revision so that the bill's language would more closely mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The federal law expands legal protections for those who refuse, for religious reasons, to follow a law.

For companies that have already adopted benefit plans for same-sex couples, the Supreme Court ruling has done little to change their polices.

Tyson Foods provides benefits to legally married spouses, regardless of gender, said company spokesman Dan Fogleman.

"We will continue to follow the law on providing benefits to our team members' spouses and families," he said.

Windstream Holdings Inc. of Little Rock has provided equal benefits to same-sex spouses and domestic partners since 2012.

"The Supreme Court ruling today will have little effect on our policies," said Windstream spokesman Michael Teague.

But Witeck, the corporate adviser, said the Supreme Court ruling could affect health-benefit policies for couples in domestic partnerships -- both gay and straight.

When same-sex marriage became legal in other states, Witeck said companies tended to drop coverage for unmarried workers' domestic partners. He said Delta Air Lines and Verizon have begun to phase out domestic partner health benefits in states where gay marriage was already legal.

"It's not quite the victory you would have hoped," he said.

Business on 06/27/2015

Print Headline: In workplace, ruling to alter benefits, more

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