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By Jayne O'Donnell , USA TODAY

In what the largest gay rights group calls an "historic move,"Walmart told employees Monday that it would extend its health and otherbenefits to "domestic partners," including those of the same sex.

Thelargest U.S. employer made the announcement quietly in a postcard itsent to employees that listed five other changes in benefits, including anew vision plan.

Research by the Human Rights Campaign shows 62%of Fortune 500 companies already offer health benefits to domesticpartners. But the Supreme Court's June decision overturning part of afederal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sexpartners, has heightened attention on same-sex benefits.

The movealso comes as other employers change their coverage in the face ofincreased costs under the new federal healthcare law known as Obamacare.UPSand the University of Virginia last week announced plans to dropcoverage for employee's spouses if they are covered by their ownemployers.

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Althoughit is among the corporate laggards on domestic partner coverage, HRC'spresident heralded Walmart's decision. Chad Griffin even worked at hislocal Arkansas Walmart as a teen.

"I am moved by my formeremployer's historic action that further proves equality is goodbusiness," Griffin said in an emailed statement. Walmart "has sent acultural signal that equality for LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual andtransgender) people is the simplest of mainstream values and we lookforward to continuing to work with them."

Griffin says Walmart hasworked to improve their score on the group's "corporate equalityindex." Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove says the company had beenworking to better define what a domestic partner is and that the SupremeCourt's decision helped prompt its move.

Partners of Walmartemployees can be of the same or opposite sex and married or unmarried,as long as they've been "living together in an ongoing exclusive"relationship for at least 12 months and intend to stay that way saysHargrove. Still, Hargrove says "no proof is required today to enroll aspouse."

Lucas Handy, an openly gay former Walmart associate fromFort Dodge, Iowa, says "it shocked me completely" when he heard of thechange in Walmart's benefits.

"It would be great if the company kept their promise on this," he says.

Buthe added that the change may be little relief to workers who struggleto work enough hours to become eligible for health care coverage and topay the high deductibles. Handy says he was no longer eligible forhealthcare after being moved from a full-time customer service positionto a part-time pharmacy technician job, but would have had difficultyaffording it anyway.

"The real issue with Walmart's healthcare isthat most of us are unable to afford the coverage," says Handy, who sayshe made $8.95 an hour.

Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg says Handywas fired after a series of policy violations. Handy says he was firedby Walmart in July for speaking out about the company's labor practices.He is collecting unemployment and volunteering for the laborunion-backed group OUR Walmart.

Hargrove says the company istesting how to make it easier for employees to see what shifts areavailable when they want more hours. He says employees need to be withthe company a year and work an average of 30 hours a week to becomeeligible for healthcare coverage.

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