Labor Department Proposes Expanded FMLA Coverage for Same-Sex Couples

By Jon Hyman

Feb. 25, 2015

Same-sex spousal rights in this country are a mess. There is hope that the Supreme Court will clear it all up later this year when it hears the issue. In the meantime, the Department of Labor has proposed a change to the Family and Medical Leave Act’s definition of “spouse.” From the DOL:

We announced a rule change under the FMLA to make sure that eligible workers in legal, same-sex marriages, regardless of where they live, will have the same rights as those in opposite-sex marriages to care for a spouse. We’ve extended that promise so that no matter who you love, you will receive the same rights and protections as everyone else.

For the purposes of the FMLA, marriage will now be determined based on where the couple got married, not on where an employee lives. This is called a “place of celebration” rule.  That means that access to federal FMLA leave for an individual in a same-sex marriage is protected regardless of the marriage laws of the state in which that worker resides.

Thus, as proposed, the meaning of “spouse” under the FMLA would depend on the law of state in which the marriage was celebrated, not the law of the state where the employee lives or works. So, if your business is in Ohio and your employee lives and works in Ohio (which does not currently permit same-sex marriages), but travels to New York for a lawful and valid same-sex wedding ceremony, you would have to grant that employee the same FMLA benefits as you would to any other “spouse.”

This rule takes effect March 27, which means you have only 30 days to prepare your FMLA policies and practices for this important change. What should you be doing to prepare? Jeff Nowak offers three really good ideas:

  1. Train your leave administrators and supervisors on the new rule.  If any of these employees are remotely involved in the leave management process (e.g., they pick up the phone when an employee reports an absence, they answer employee questions about absences, they determine eligibility and/or designation rights under FMLA), they need to understand their responsibilities under the new rule, since benefits available to certain employees will have changed.

  2. Review and amend your FMLA policy and procedures, as well as all FMLA-related forms and notices, to the extent that they specifically define the term “spouse” in a way that does not account for the new rule.

  3. Be mindful that this new regulation covers individuals who enter into a same-sex marriage. However, the FMLA does not protect civil unions or domestic partnerships, so employers are well advised to determine whether FMLA applies in any particular situation. That said, employers are free to provide greater rights than those provided for under the FMLA.

Of course, as Robin Shea correctly points out, if the Supreme Court rules later this year that states must recognize valid same-sex marriages entered in other states (as it should), then the necessity of this DOL regulatory change is short lived.

Courtesy of the DOL, here are all of the resources you need on this important issue:

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at

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