DOL Clarifies FMLA Leave Entitlement for Same-Sex Spouses

by Morgan Lewis
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In the wake of the Supreme Court's Windsor decision, employers should review and, if necessary, revise their FMLA policies and procedures to ensure compliance.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently clarified that same-sex spouses are now covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to the extent that an employee's marriage is recognized in the state in which the employee resides. This clarification, which follows the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Windsor,[1] is consistent with the existing FMLA regulatory language defining a "spouse" for purposes of FMLA coverage.

The DOL did not issue any new formal, stand-alone guidance but instead revised several existing FMLA guidance documents to remove references to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It also affirmatively stated in a newly released Field Operations Handbook section on the FMLA that "[s]pouse means 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 and same sex marriage."

Moving forward, FMLA spousal leave will only be available to employees who reside in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, given that the existing FMLA regulatory language tied spousal coverage to the place of residence prior to the Windsor decision. However, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which has jurisdiction over FMLA rights for federal employees, recently issued post-Windsor guidance that extends FMLA leave rights to the spouses of federal employees without regard to states of residence.[2] OPM's approach could eventually be followed by DOL for private sector employees and those employees otherwise covered by DOL rules but likely would require regulatory changes that would involve a notice and comment period.

It is worth noting that, while DOL's clarification reflects a general increase in federal FMLA leave rights available to same-sex couples, in some circumstances, the availability of FMLA leave rights could mean a decrease in a given employee's overall leave entitlement. For example, same-sex spouses residing in states recognizing same-sex marriage will now be subject to the FMLA's restrictions on the combined amount of leave that spouses working for the same employer can use in certain circumstances. Similarly, an employee might have been entitled pre-Windsor to leave pursuant to state (but not federal) law to care for a same-sex spouse, which meant that the employee's state and federal leave entitlements could not be exhausted concurrently.

Conclusion

In light of DOL's updated guidance, employers should make sure that their FMLA policies allow spousal leave for employees in a same-sex marriage that is lawful in the state in which the employee resides. Employers, however, will need to think carefully about how they will administer such policies to avoid both employee relations issues and sexual orientation discrimination claims. For example, if an employer does not request documentation from an employee in an opposite-sex marriage as to whether the employee's marriage is recognized in the state in which he or she resides, issues may arise if this information was requested of an employee in a same-sex marriage. While some employers may choose simply to grant FMLA leave to all employees regardless of domicile, employers need to be aware that such time may not be recognized as statutory FMLA leave. Employers should also pay close attention to future developments in this area as more states consider recognizing same-sex marriages.

[1]. United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013).

[2]. See U.S. Office of Personnel Admin., Benefits Administration Letter No. 13-203, Coverage of Same-Sex Spouses (July 17, 2013).

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