Rights Group: More U.S. Companies Covering Cost of Gender Reassignment Surgery

December 8, 2011 - 4:00 AM

Transgender TSA Worker

Ashley Yang, a transgender woman poses for a photo at Los Angeles International Airport, (LAX) on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011, in Los Angeles. Yang was fired from her Transportation Security Administration, passenger screener job at LAX for using the women's room. She recently received a five-figure settlement, back pay and mandatory transgender sensitivity for TSA managers at the LAX airport. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The number of major U.S. companies covering the cost of gender reassignment surgery for transgender workers has more than doubled in the past year, according to a new scorecard compiled by the nation's largest gay rights group.

The Human Rights Campaign said in a report to be published Thursday that 207 of the 636 businesses it surveyed for its annual Corporate Equality Index either are already providing transgender- inclusive employee health benefits or plan to at the start of the new year.

Last year, 85 companies had insurance plans that paid for sex transformation surgeries, and only 49 did in 2009. A decade ago, when the campaign launched the index, none did.

The major force behind the jump is the fact that this is the first year the Human Rights Campaign graded corporations and law firms on whether their medical plans paid for the full complement of procedures workers might need to transition to a new gender on the job, from psychological counseling to genital reconstruction.

To maintain a coveted 100 percent and a listing in the campaign's preferred vendors' guide for gay, lesbian and transgender consumers, companies had to offer at least one insurance plan that covers at least $75,000 worth of surgery and other treatments recommended by a patient's doctor.

"We really wanted to set a best-in-class standard for what it meant to provide the holistic class of LGBT inclusion in the workplace," campaign spokesman Fred Sainz said.

Among the corporations that expanded their insurance coverage this year are Apple, Chevron, General Mills, Dow Chemical, American Airlines, Kellogg, Sprint, Levi Strauss, Eli Lilly, Best Buy, Nordstrom, the U.S. division of Volkswagen, Whirlpool, Xerox, Raytheon and Office Depot.

Frantz Tiffeau, senior manager of supply chain diversity at Florida-based Office Depot, said the decision to cover transgender surgery was made by senior executives who understood the procedures to be medically indicated, not elective. The office supplies company already had had employees change genders, before the new health plan was adopted.

"Realistically, we just looked at it as a necessity," Tiffeau said. "Our executive V.P. said, 'It's the right thing to do, it's something we support and we have employees who have this need."

To bolster its ranking on the campaign's index, Office Depot also has started sponsoring gay rights events such as an annual leadership conference held by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The activities have not produced negative reactions from customers, Tiffeau said.

Dallas-based American Airlines, which has maintained a perfect score on the Corporate Equality Index since it was created, not only augmented its insurance coverage but amended its family leave policy so workers could take time off to care for a spouse or partner undergoing sex reassignment surgery, said Lauri CQ Curtis, vice president for diversity, leadership and engagement.

"We have a lot of employees, and we have a lot of employees who make up the world, if you will, and we thought this benefit could be of use to some," Curtis said.

Jamison Green, a San Francisco workplace diversity consultant who helped craft the new transgender health standards for the annual report card, called the 145 percent increase in companies with transgender-inclusive health benefits "phenomenal progress." He said that with more employers getting on board, the next task is persuade more insurance companies to include transition-related surgeries in their standard health plans.

Many insurers still categorize sex reassignment surgery as cosmetic, even though the American Medical Association considers it vital for some people who have been diagnosed with gender identity disorders, according to Green.

"My contention is it's pure bias born of ignorance to leave these kneejerk exclusions in place, which got written into policies 30 years ago based on theories that were active at the time about who transsexual people were and what that meant," he said.

The Human Rights Campaign also found that corporate America is far ahead of the public sector in terms of providing job protections for transgender people.

Half of the Fortune 500 corporations and 80 percent of the companies the campaign surveyed have equal employment opportunity provisions that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity of gender non-conformity, according to the new index. Only 16 states, by contrast, have laws designed to protect transgender people from job and housing discrimination.

During the 10 years the Human Rights Campaign has been surveying big employers, the percentage with employee groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers or diversity councils that include gay representatives has more than doubled, going from 40 percent to 83 percent.

Minneapolis-based food maker General Mills has participated in the survey for eight of its 10 years and earned a 100 percent rating six times. Now that the company has addressed such issues as domestic partner benefits, transgender health care and diversity training that discusses gay rights, it is turning its attention to making sure workers of all sexual orientations are aware of promotion opportunities, Vice President Kenneth Charles said.

"Honestly, I think there is an opportunity to take the conversation beyond benefits parity," Charles said. During a recent leadership day for gay, lesbian and transgender employees, the focus was "how we could help them accelerate their careers and bring their authentic selves to work every day."