c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

The Exxon Mobil Corp., which has drawn much criticism for policies related to its gay and lesbian workers, said Friday that it would extend health insurance to married same-sex couples effective Oct. 1.

The move is an about-face for the company, which had defied pressure from human rights groups, pension funds and some of its own shareholders that had asked the company to protect gay and lesbian employees from discrimination in the United States. But Exxon Mobilís latest change of heart on same-sex benefits was not a result of soul-searching. Rather, the company said it was following the policies of the federal government, which, in recent months, has begun to issue rule changes and guidance on how gay couples should be treated in light of the Supreme Courtís monumental decision in June to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.

The decision found that gay couples who are legally married were entitled to the same federal benefits as straight couples.

Last week, the Labor Department, which oversees employer-based retirement, pension and health insurance plans, issued its own guidance: It said that all legal same-sex spouses are entitled to the same protections as opposite-sex spouses. But itís also important to note that employers arenít required to provide medical spousal benefits at all. But if they do, the agency said that same-sex spouses should be treated equally.

The oil giant, whose benefits cover 77,000 workers and retirees in the United States, said it has always looked to national laws for guidance.

It also said that it provides benefits to same-sex spouses in 30 countries outside the United States.

The Labor Department law that governs many employee benefits, known as ERISA, or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, states that a plan can offer health coverage without including spouses.

In fact, some experts note that there are no explicit laws that prohibit a company from offering health benefits only to opposite-sex spouses. But ďitís in employersí interest to simply adopt one standard, recognizing all married couples for benefits, and avoid potential litigation,Ē said Brian Moulton, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, a group that works for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Some legal experts say that Exxonís move could prompt other companies that must follow ERISA rules, but donít have same-sex benefits, to follow suit.