They now can take sick time to care for ill partners or their children, or as bereavement time when a member of their partner's family dies. Previously, such use of sick time was barred under state work rules.
State workers also now can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave to care for their domestic partners.
Nevertheless, the contract does not extend health or any other benefits to domestic partners.
"They only get to take leave they have already earned," said Secretary of Administration Bob Barnett, who negotiated the contract for the administration.
The provisions are part of a four-year deal struck between the state and 13,000 members of the Service Employees International Union and its affiliated locals. The state's other large unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, did not seek the benefit change.
Barnett said the administration soon is expected to extend the sick-leave benefits to about 13,000 nonunion state workers, many of them supervisors. That will mean roughly a third of the 88,000 employees under the governor's control would fall under the new rules.
Rita Addessa, executive director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force, applauded the move.
"In many ways, it reflects the growing recognition of lesbian and gay families in the United States," Addessa said. Still, she said, because domestic partners of those state workers will not have health benefits, it's "a victory that doesn't go far enough."
Barnett could not put a price on the changes, but said they would come at a minimal cost to the state.
"They asked for it, and we had no reason not to say yes to this," Barnett said. "This is good for employees, had minimal cost, and was consistent with Gov. Rendell's record."
Just last week, Rendell signed an executive order guarding transgendered people from employment discrimination in state government.
And as mayor in 1998, Rendell signed a landmark Philadelphia ordinance that recognized same-sex relationships as "life partnerships" and extended benefits, including health coverage, to the domestic partners of gay city workers.
Last year, the Commonwealth Court, in a unanimous decision, overturned the ordinance because it circumvented the state's power to define marriage. The city appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.
William Devlin, the founder of the Urban Family Council and the lead plaintiff in the case, said the union contract is another attack against the family.
"What the governor is doing is basically throwing out all current marriage statutes," said Devlin. "He's tossed them out for Ed Rendell's definition of family, which is anybody who has ever appeared on 'Jerry Springer.' "
The new benefits come as religious groups, Congress and President Bush debate whether same-sex partners should qualify as families.
Steve Miskin, press secretary to House Majority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), predicted that some of the more conservative lawmakers likely would propose legislation to block the provision.
While a contractual agreement would be difficult to break, Steve MacNett, the Senate Republicans' top lawyer, said he believes the Republican-controlled legislature can move to prevent the administration from extending those benefits to nonunion employees.
"Pennsylvania is a very conservative state," Miskin said, "and this is a major departure from previous policy."
Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or email@example.com.