Gardeners' Supply, a $20-million mail-order company in Burlington, Vt., didn't trust garden-variety benefits to satisfy employees. "People with different lifestyles work here," CEO Don Ross says. "Traditional benefits didn't serve their needs." So in 1990 health benefits were extended to employees' unmarried partners.

Other companies, including Lotus Development, in Cambridge, Mass., and Boston-based International Data Group (IDG), have begun offering similar benefits. Even so, fewer than 35 companies offer such benefits, according to benefits consulting firm Hewitt Associates. Employers' concerns include --

Cost. Data are limited, but companies with extended benefits report little difference between claims from unmarried and married partners.

Qualification. IDG requires partners to sign an affidavit stating that they share responsibility for each other's well-being. The Gardeners' program takes an employee's word. Lotus Development extends benefits only to homosexual partners; IDG and Gardeners' cover all unmarried partners.

Administration. Companies cannot treat the employee's expense as they do other benefits; it's treated as compensation. And COBRA benefits don't apply.

Reaction. After extending partnership benefits to its 1,600 U.S. employees, IDG heard from hundreds of them, all pleased.

Although $800-million IDG persuaded its insurer to change its policy, most insurers don't cover unmarried partners. Gardeners' Supply instead pays partners a monthly stipend equal to the amount it pays to cover a spouse. Single coverage costs about $90 a month, which Gardeners' pays. Family coverage costs $280 a month; Gardeners' pays the individual's $90, plus 50% of the rest, or $95. Now partners receive $95, too, toward coverage they find themselves.

Only a few Gardeners' employees use the benefit, but, Ross says, "the day we announced this, we got a standing ovation from employees." -- Michael P. Cronin

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Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm, has published Domestic Partners and Employee Benefits, which summarizes pertinent legal and administrative developments. The $10 guide includes private-sector case studies. Call Loralie Van Sluys at 708-295-5000.

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