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The Department of Labor announced on June 20th a proposed rule that would allow an employee to take FMLA leave to care for their same-sex spouse, regardless of whether the employee lives in a state that recognizes their marital status. As expected, the DOL has adopted a “state of celebration” rule, in which a spousal status for purposes of FMLA is determined not on the state in which the employee currently resides (as currently stated in the FMLA regulations), but based on the law of the state where the employee was married. For example, if the employee was married in New York, but now resides with his same-sex spouse in Indiana, the employee will enjoy FMLA rights to care for his spouse as if he had resided in New York.
DOL’s Interpretation of FMLA after U.S. v. Windsor
The FMLA allows employees to take leave from work to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Before U.S. v. Windsor abolished certain portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), same-sex couples were not allowed to take FMLA leave to care for a same-sex spouse, since DOMA did not recognize the relationship. After the Windsor decision but before the recent announcement, employees were eligible to take FMLA leave to care for a same-sex spouse only if they have resided in a state in which same-sex marriage is legal.
According to the DOL’s notification, the proposed new FMLA regulation includes the following highlights:
The proposed rule would mean that eligible employees, regardless of where they live, would be able to:
The DOL announced the proposed changes on Friday in a press release, stating, ”The basic promise of the FMLA is that no one should have to choose between succeeding at work and being a loving family caregiver … Under the proposed revisions, the FMLA will be applied to all families equally, enabling individuals in same-sex marriages to fully exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities to their families.”
The Notice is Not Unexpected
It was only a matter of time before this regulatory announcement became reality. In fact, the DOL foreshadowed the move when it issued Technical Release 2013-04 in September 2013, at which time the agency took the position that — at least with respect to employee benefit plans — the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in Title I of ERISA and its implementing regulations “should be read to include same-sex couples legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages, regardless of where they currently live.”
As with other proposed regulatory changes, the public will be given the chance to provide comment directly to the DOL on the proposed change before the agency issues a final rule on the issue. After the final rule is adopted, employers should review and amend their FMLA policy and procedures, as well as all FMLA-related forms and notices.
On June 26, 2013, the US Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. DOMA had previously established the federal definition of marriage as a legal union only between one man and one woman. The extinction of DOMA already has HR departments thinking how this will impact the future of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as well as other benefits.
How FMLA is Impacted
As we know, the FMLA allows otherwise eligible employees to take leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. “Family member” includes the employee’s spouse, which, under the FMLA regulations, is defined as:
a husband or wife as defined or recognized under State law for purposes of marriage in the State where the employee resides, including common law marriage in States where it is recognized. 29 C.F.R. 825.102
Initially, this seems to suggest that the DOL would look to state law to define “spouse”…but not so fast. According to a 1998 Department of Labor opinion letter, the DOL acknowledged that the FMLA was bound by DOMA’s definition that “spouse” could only be a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife. Thus, the DOL has taken the position that only DOMA’s definitions could be recognized for FMLA leave purposes. As a result, FMLA leave has not been made available to same-sex spouses.
That changes yesterday, at least in part.
What’s Clear about FMLA After the Ruling
In striking down a significant part of DOMA, the Supreme Court cleared the way for each state to decide its own definition of “spouse”. Thus, if an employee is married to a same-sex partner and lives in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, the employee will be entitled to take FMLA leave to care for his/her spouse who is suffering from a serious health condition, for military caregiver leave, or to take leave for a qualifying exigency when a same-sex spouse is called to active duty in a foreign country while in the military.
What’s Unclear about FMLA After the Ruling
But what about employees who live in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage? Are they entitled to FMLA leave to care for their spouses?
As an initial matter, the regulations look to the employee’s “place of domicile” (aka state of primary residence) to determine whether a person is a spouse for purposes of FMLA. Therefore, even if the employee formerly lived or was married in a state that recognized the same-sex marriage, he/she is unlikely to be considered a spouse in the “new” state for purposes of FMLA if the state does not recognize the marriage. This is no small issue, since 30+ states currently do not recognize same-sex marriage and some don’t go all the way (e.g. Illinois, which recognizes same-sex unions, not marriages).
Surely, some might argue that the U.S. Constitution requires other states to recognize the marriage; however, this issue is far from settled. Clearly employers need some help from the DOL. It is speculated that the DOL may draft regulations on how employers can administer FMLA in situations where the employee’s spouse is not recognized under state law. This would give life to concepts such as a “State of Celebration” rule, in which a spousal status is determined based on the law of the State where the employee was married and not where they reside. However, without more guidance, it is still too early to tell how the DOL will handle this.
Other Key Benefits Affected by the DOMA Decision
FMLA is not the only federal law impacted by the fall of DOMA. If federal regulations follow through, some of the notable federal laws and benefits impacted may include: