Delivery company UPS has announced it will offer health care benefits to all civil union partners of employees in New Jersey, including those in the Teamsters union.

Gay rights groups had criticised the company for denying some employees in same-sex partnerships the same rights as married workers.

“Based on an initial legal review when New Jersey’s law was enacted, it did not appear that a ‘civil union’ and ‘marriage’ were equivalent,” noted Allen Hill, UPS’s senior vice president for human resources.

“Over the past week, however, we have received clear guidance that at least in New Jersey, the state truly views civil union partners as married.

“We’ve heard that loud and clear from state officials and we’re happy to make this change.”

The change in policy came after the New Jersey Governor called on UPS to comply with the state’s civil union law.

“We commend UPS for taking this step,” said Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Workplace Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.

The extension of benefits to civil union partners of hourly employees in New Jersey will cover approximately 8,700 workers, although it is not known how many of those employees have joined in civil unions.

About 5,400 non-union UPS workers in New Jersey were already eligible.

According to New Jersey law, same-sex couples in civil unions have equal entitlement to employment benefits.

UPS had said that it was not acting out of homophobic sentiments but according to New Jersey law, where the non-discrimination legislation was only valid for those employees not organised in a union.

A spokesperson of New Jersey’s GLBT rights organisation Garden State Equality said that they have had over 200 complaints about similar employer discrimination.

Lilo Stainton, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, told The New York Times:

“The governor is extremely pleased with the news, not just for what it means for these couples, but also for the larger implication and the greater meaning of New Jersey’s civil union law.”

Gay rights groups regard this case as an example of how civil unions cement discrimination against gays, because if the state had legalised gay marriage none of these contentions would have arisen.

UPS driver Tom Walton, who appealed to the company over benefits for his civil partner, was pleased with yesterday’s announcement, but told The New York Times that applying for a home loan shows why civil unions are not the same as marriage.

“They asked if we were married. We said, well we’re civil union partners. But there was no box to check.

“There was single, married, and divorced. The woman looked at us like she had never heard of such a thing.

“The fact is, we have to explain ourselves.”