My Turn: The Alaska Family Medical Leave Act - not for our families

Carmen Cortese and Janet Forbes were married at the Douglas United Methodist Church, with their children and grandchildren present, and their congregation standing in support. As State workers, they registered as domestic partners in order to obtain some of the couples’ benefits that legal marriage automatically confers. Now, years later, the promise “to have and to hold, in sickness and in health” has entered their lives. Carmen’s cough turned out to be cancer. Overnight she and Janet flew to Seattle for evaluation. The cancer was advanced, requiring three months of chemo and radiation in Seattle. To care for Carmen, Janet applied for the Alaska Family Medical Leave Act/AKFLA that would allow unpaid leave. But the DOC Human Resources denied her application and said her same-sex relationship was not valid for AKFLA. So Janet flew back to Juneau for work, and left Carmen alone last week as Carmen bravely underwent surgery to remove her lymph nodes. On her days off Janet flies back and forth to be with Carmen at this tender time.

“Not fair” you may be thinking. This is what life looks like when certain families are not equally protected by Federal and State laws. The first chop to LGBT rights came with the 1998 Alaska constitutional amendment, a Defense of Marriage Act/DOMA. A few years later a majority of the Alaska State legislators specified further discrimination against LGBT families. “No benefits of marriage” was added to the amendment. The Alaska Legislature shut the door on equality for families like Carmen and Janet’s. So far, Janet’s co-workers are not allowed to donate leave to her. She would be using that leave for absences not sanctioned under AKFLA. It appears that Alaska has made sure that same-sex state worker spouses cannot fully care for their families.

CBJ and the University of Alaska allow same-sex couples’ families to use FMLA. Likely many of the big corporations that do business in Alaska allow FMLA for same-sex couples. And as the Human Rights Campaign web site points out, “Corporate America has responded to the discrimination established by the federal DOMA by extending FMLA-like leave for same-sex couples. Nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies extend family leave to same-sex couples.” It’s fair, and it’s good business to be fair.

FMLA became federal law in 1993 and sought to encourage public and private employers to provide unpaid leave and job protection for employees who need time off for personal illness or family care. The State of Alaska has an opportunity here to do the right thing. Join us in asking our state legislators and Governor Sean Parnell to extend the Alaska Family Medical Leave Act to all our families, including state registered domestic partners. It’s time we removed discriminatory clauses hidden in our regulations.

In the U.S. House and Senate, HR 1751/S846 the Maloney-Durbin Family & Medical Leave Inclusion Act was reintroduced to include LGBT families. Contact our U.S. legislators Mark Begich, Lisa Murkowski and Don Young, and ask them to swiftly move these bills forward. The stress of not being able to be with each other during difficult medical situations is the last thing that couples like Carmen and Janet need.

To deny some of our families the ability to care for one another is wrong. We all need to take care of our families.

We are planning a Community Benefit for Carmen and Janet Sunday, May 26, 12:15-2 p.m. at the Douglas United Methodist Church (phone 364-3408). Carmen and Janet will be here. Refreshments in Grant Hall begin at 12:15 p.m., then singing with the Juneau Pride Chorus and other soloists, blessings for Carmen and Janet, Love Offering Donations in the Sanctuary 1-2 p.m. Carmen then returns to Seattle for three months.

Please donate to the “Carmen Cortese Donation Account” at any Wells Fargo Bank (no account number needed). Or call Janet 957-7896 with Alaska Airline mile donations.

Let’s take care of one another, without exception. Juneau is that kind of place.

Maureen Longworth, M.D. and Lin Davis are 20-year Juneau residents.


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