FMLA Covers Spouses in Same Sex Marriages

New regulations issued by the United States Department of Labor (DOL) make it clear that the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects spouses in same sex marriages.

same-sex marriage protected under FMLAThe FMLA is a federal law which, among other things, guarantees covered employees can take up to 12 weeks per year off from work to care for their own serious health condition, a serious health condition of a member of their immediate family, or for pregnancy, childbirth or adoption. To be covered, an employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months, worked at least 1,250 hours for the employer during the previous 12 months, and worked at a location at which the employer has at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius.

The FMLA defines “immediate family” to include a parent, child or spouse. However, until last year’s Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, the federal government did not recognize same sex marriages. Therefore, the FMLA did not protect employees in same sex marriages to the same extent it protects employees in opposite sex marriages. The new regulations are intended to correct this problem.

For instance, the new regulations make it clear that the term “spouse” includes partners in same sex marriages. Specifically, it includes (1) any individual who is considered married under the law of the State in which the marriage was entered into, and (2) any individual who is married outside of the United States if the marriage is recognized both in the country in which the marriage took place and in at least one State.

In addition to expanding the definition of spouse, the new regulations make it clear that irrespective of whether they are the same or opposite sex, both parents are entitled to take FMLA leave for the birth or adoption of their child, and to bond with their newborn child during the first year after birth. The previous version of the regulations referred to these rights belonging to the “mother” and “father,” terms that assumed a marriage is only be between a man and a woman.

Likewise, the new regulations make it clear that a spouse of either gender is entitled to take time off to care for his or her pregnant spouse who is incapacitated, providing prenatal care, or has a serious health condition following childbirth. Previously, the regulations only gave this right to the “husband” on the assumption that the spouse who is not pregnant would be a man.

Numerous other provisions of the FMLA regulations were revised to be consistent with same sex couples. For example, previous rights of “the mother” were changed to be rights of the “expectant mother” in recognition that marriages can have two mothers, and the rights in question belong to the mother who is pregnant. These rights include time off due to incapacity as a result of pregnancy, for prenatal care, or for the expectant mother’s own serious health condition following childbirth.

These new regulations are scheduled to go into effect on March 27, 2015.