Post-DOMA for Employers
With the dust just settling on Wednesday’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, and Proposition 8 federal court opinions, now is the time for employers to consider the potential impact on their businesses.
Among the workplace-related issues raised in the cases are: continuation of benefits under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), eligibility for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), taxation of spousal health benefits, eligibility for spousal retirement benefits, and surviving spouse social security benefits. And there are more.
In view of this, let’s take a look at what the court opinions will mean for business.
Part of DOMA Definition of Marriage Unconstitutional
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in United States v. Windsor, that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. This is the section that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman only, excluding same-sex marriages and polygamy.
Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the 5-4 opinion:
By seeking to injure the very class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to Federal Government…Its unusual deviation from the tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with federal recognition of their marriages.
By applying the DOMA definition of marriage, over 1,000 federal benefits were denied to same-sex married couples. Many same-sex spouses were left without healthcare, pension and retirement benefits, tax benefits (see Kira S. Masteller’s blog regarding Edith Schlain Windsor’s claim, when her partner Thea Spyer passed) and leaves of absence privileges when a spouse serves in the military, has a child, or needs medical care – to cite just a few examples.
Proposition 8 & DOMA – Employer Checklist
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed the definition of marriage under DOMA void, you may need to:
- Review employee handbooks
- Review employee benefit packages
- Revisit retirement plans, since many define marriage by DOMA standards
- Prepare to garnish wages in the event of an employee’s divorce or child support obligations, when s/he has been unable to meet those demands.
- Ensure employees know their spouses may qualify for benefits
To the extent they already provide benefits to same-sex spouses or domestic partners, employers should consider whether further changes are required. Finally, employers can expect to hear from workers wanting to add a spouse to a benefit plan. Be ready to promptly handle such requests.
There are still many open questions. In the meantime, make sure you take steps to comply with the law, including treating same-sex employees and their spouses the same way you would treat any other employee or spouse – without discrimination in pay, working conditions, or benefits.