President Obama plans to announce today a proposed rule that would allow an employee to take FMLA leave to care for a same-sex spouse, regardless of whether the employee lives in a state that recognizes their marital status. As expected, the Obama administration intends to adopt 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 Evolving 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 today’s 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.
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.”
Today, the Obama Administration also is expected to issue the findings of its year-long review of how the Windsor decision impacts other federal benefits. It is anticipated that same-sex married couples will enjoy the same federal benefits and obligations as other married couples, regardless of where they 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. As the rule comes into effect, let’s not forget about the application of state law. In some states, employees who are in a same-sex marriages or in a domestic partner relationship already may enjoy certain leave protections under the law.