The Definition of “Spouse” to Legally Married Same-Sex Couples
There appears to be some confusion when employers are attempting to accommodate FMLA leave requests for the “spouse” of a same-sex couple. Well, to clarify this issue, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) has announced a notice of proposed rulemaking to revise the definition of “spouse” under the FMLA to make it clear that the FMLA applies to legally married same-sex spouses, regardless of where they live. Before last year, the FMLA applied only to opposite sex spouses. Last year, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in United States v. Windsor, holding that federal laws that discriminate against same-sex married couples are unconstitutional. As a result of the Windsor decision, the FMLA’s provisions allowing family and medical leave to care for a “spouse” became applicable not only to opposite-sex spouses but also to same-sex spouses – so long as the employee requesting leave resides in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. This is because the FMLA currently defines “spouse” in a way that is tied to the law of the state where the employee resides. The problem with the current spousal definition is that many states still do not recognize same-sex marriage, and even if an employee was married in a state that does recognize same-sex marriage, he or she technically is not eligible for FMLA leave (to care for a spouse) if currently living in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. This has resulted in administration difficulties for employers, many of whom would prefer not to have to engage in an inquiry about whether the employee resides in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage in order to determine whether to allow the employee leave. However, employers who have decided that they will provide the same leave benefits to same-sex spouses regardless of the state in which they reside, run the risk of deducting from an employee’s FMLA leave bank if the employee actually resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Because the FMLA technically does not apply to spousal leave for that employee, any leave allowed should not be deducted from the employee’s FMLA leave bank. If the leave was deducted and the employee improperly was deemed to have exhausted all available leave only to later be denied leave that did fall under the FMLA, the employer could face liability for wrongful denial of FMLA leave.
The proposed amendment to the FMLA’s “spouse” definition eliminates this problem. Under the proposed rule, “spouse” would be defined to include individuals legally married in any state (including common law marriage where recognized under the law of the state). The definition would also extend to individuals validly married abroad if the individuals could have been legally married in any U.S. state.
The proposed rule has not yet been published. Once it is, it will be subject to a public comment period and approval process before it is actually approved and implemented. I will keep you posted of developments in this regard. Employers covered by the FMLA will want to check back with us and, once the rule is finalized, revise their FMLA policies and practices to ensure that their FMLA administration practices are in compliance with the new rule. For now, I would suggest extending the leave and not get into the issues surrounding same-sex couples.