Citing the need to maintain a quality work force and the benefits of diversity, Boeing announced late Friday plans to offer the benefits next year to the domestic partners of salaried nonunion employees.
The decision, announced to company managers by e-mail, was praised by gay rights advocates. But it was criticized by union leaders for leaving out their members and unmarried heterosexual partners.
Annetta Small, director of the West Coast office of Kerusso Ministries, which seeks to persuade gays and lesbians to become heterosexual through Christianity, also was critical.
"We are giving benefits to a behavior that I believe is wrong and that I believe is immoral," she said. "I don't believe that we should extend these benefits to people who are not married."
Company officials did not say how many employees would be affected. Roughly half of Boeing's 202,000 employees worldwide are salaried and nonunion.
A recent Forbes Magazine survey indicated unmarried partners are covered by health benefits in 10 percent of the businesses with at least 200 employees. Companies that provide same-sex partner benefits include Lotus Development Corp., Microsoft Corp., IBM, Walt Disney Co., Honeywell and Xerox.
This summer, United Airlines agreed to extend some benefits to domestic partners, just hours after an appeals court refused to grant the company an exemption to a San Francisco ordinance mandating certain benefits.
Within two weeks of United's decision, American Airlines and US Airways also adopted the policy.
Boeing's decision was long overdue, said Charles Fay, chairman of Hands-Off Washington in Snohomish County, and Dennis Rybicki, a spokesman for the Snohomish County Elections Committee, which ranks political candidates on gay and lesbian issues.
"This should send a signal to other employers, large and small, that it's good business to recognize the value of all families," Fay said.
The executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, Charles Bofferding, said his union would like the benefits, but the move seemed to be designed to sabotage his group's contract negotiations, which begin Monday.
SPEEA is the second-largest union at Boeing, representing 23,000 scientists, engineers and technical workers.
Bofferding said by leaving out union members, Boeing may be trying to get the union to give up other potential bargaining demands in exchange for obtaining health-care benefits for same-sex partners.
Boeing spokesman Peter Conte said the benefits will not be offered to unmarried heterosexual partners because they can get married, an option not legally available to same-sex partners.