By Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - The largest U.S. freight carriers will begin providing medical benefits to the spouses of gay union workers, a rail company coalition said on Wednesday, a day after two same-sex couples sued BNSF Railway for denying equal benefits.
The National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), which represents BNSF Railway Co and other railroad companies in labor negotiations, said the freight haulers would provide dependent healthcare coverage to "eligible" same-sex spouses of railroad employees with coverage beginning on January 1.
The NRLC wrote on its website on Wednesday that providing such benefits is not required by current laws or labor contracts but "the railroads agreed with labor to provide this benefit in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access the same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples."
The move comes a day after two gay railroad engineers in Washington state, one male and one female, filed a federal discrimination lawsuit in Seattle against BNSF Railway.
The engineers accuse the freight hauler, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, of wrongly denying healthcare benefits to their same-sex spouses even after the Washington state began recognizing gay marriages last December.
"This is sexual orientation discrimination," said Cleveland Stockmeyer, a lawyer representing the couples. "If they do fix it going forward they still have to account for one year of discrimination."
The fight over how to define marriage, and what changes mean for company-provided healthcare benefits, has simmered in the United States and across the world. Fifteen U.S. states, most recently Hawaii, and Washington D.C. recognize same-sex marriages.
It was not clear whether the new benefits offered by the freight carriers would apply to same-gender couples living in states where their unions were not recognized.
BNSF Railway already offers benefits to same-sex spouses of salaried workers, but not for its unionized employees because doing so requires changing labor union contracts, said Steve Forsberg, a spokesman for the freight hauler.
The NRLC, which also represents units of Union Pacific Corp and CSX Corp, however, has the authority to change the rule that BNSF Railway lacks, Forsberg said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Paul Simao)