United States Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, recently issued an internal memorandum to department staff outlining the Department of Labor’s plan to issue guidance documents which will, among other things, make protected leave available to same-sex couples under Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). This action comes as the Department prepares to implement the Supreme Court’s recent decision in U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex spouses. Calling it a “historic step toward equality for all American families,” Secretary Perez noted that the Department of Labor will coordinate with other federal agencies to make these changes “as swiftly and smoothly as possible.”
Secretary Perez stated that guidance documents would be updated to remove references to DOMA and to “affirm the availability of spousal leave based on same-sex marriages under the FMLA. This change is of great consequence to same-sex spouses who previously were unable to access the job-protected leave provided under the FMLA. Now, eligible same-sex spouses will be able to take FMLA leave for certain specified family and medical reasons, including caring for a spouse with a serious health condition, and generally will be returned to their original position or another position with equivalent pay, benefits and status. The new interpretation reflected in the Department’s updated guidance documents will be effective immediately.
In the Department’s official blog, Modern Families and Worker Protections, Laura Fortman, the principal deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, announced on August 13, 2013 that revisions had already been made to various FMLA guidance documents to reflect the changes necessitated by U.S. v. Windsor. Fortman clarified that the “changes are not regulatory, and they do not fundamentally change the FMLA.” They merely expand the universe of employees who are eligible for FMLA benefits by including legally married same- sex couples. The updated documents can be viewed at these links:
FMLA PowerPoint (slide 12)
WHD Field Operations Handbook Chapter 39d03(d)(1) (p.23 of PDF)
WHD Opinion Letter FMLA 98 (header)
Although Secretary Perez did not specifically address the question, the updated guidance documents indicate that the Department only intends to expand FMLA benefits to same-sex spouses in the 13 states and the District of Columbia that have recognized same-sex marriage. As an example, Fact Sheet#28F, Qualifying Reasons for Leave Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, defines “spouse” for purposes of FMLA leave 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 and same-sex marriage.” In contrast, the Office of Personnel Management announced on its website that benefits will be extended to Federal employees and annuitants who have “legally married a spouse of the same sex, regardless of the employee’s or annuitant’s state of residency.”
As initial steps to implementing these changes, employers should inform or train human resources personnel regarding the availability of FMLA leave to eligible employees under the specified definition of spouse; review internal procedures and leave documentation to ensure compliance, and finally, review employee handbooks and policies to include provisions for same-sex couples where appropriate.