With Right to Marry, Same-Sex Spouses Now Eligible for Hundreds of Employment Benefits

by Katie Tracy

July 07, 2015

The Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 recognizing same-sex couples’ fundamental right to marry is a significant, albeit long overdue, civil rights victory for the LGBT community and for our nation.  You don’t have to look any further than the long list of benefits available only to married couples to see how denying same-sex couples the right to marry or refusing to recognize their marriage performed in another state is discriminatory.  Fortunately, the Court’s ruling means same-sex spouses will now become eligible for these benefits no matter where they reside.

Given that many of these benefits relate to employment, this is a huge step forward for LGBT workers’ economic rights.  The significance of this is well stated in AFL-CIO’s amicus brief to the Court explaining the economic impact that the denial of employment benefits has on same-sex couples:

“State laws that deny the right to marry to same-sex couples, by intention and design, ensure those couples earn less money, pay higher taxes on their wages and benefits, and have available to them fewer valuable benefits than their married counterparts. . . . [S]uch laws impermissibly relegate an entire class of working families to a lower stratum of economic security by irrationally depriving LGBT workers of the employment benefits extended to their coworkers.”

Among these rights and responsibilities that extend from or may arise in relation to the workplace, and that offer benefits dependent on marital status include:

  • Employer-provided health care. In states that have denied and refused to recognize same-sex marriages, partners can’t to enroll for family coverage under an employer-provided health care plan unless the employer elected to offer coverage for domestic partnerships.  Same-sex spouses and children will now have the opportunity to enroll for family coverage, no longer forcing them to pay higher premiums and taxes or forego coverage altogether.  Same-sex couples can decide to have one partner stay home to care for a child or family member without concern about health care coverage.  That said, challenges to employer-based health care enrollment are likely, according to NPR, which reports that some lawyers say the Court’s decision won’t require employers to offer coverage to same-sex spouses just because they offer it to opposite-sex spouses. (Remember, employment discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is perfectly legal in many states.)

  • Family and medical leave. Same-sex partners in states that don’t permit or recognize same-sex marriages have been denied leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act because the law only requires employers to grant leave for a spouse or child of the employee.  The Department of Labor finalized a rule that would authorize leave to care for same-sex partners, but several states have filed suit seeking to stop the rule from being enforced.  Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, these couples can rest assured they have the same rights as their co-workers to care for family members.

  • Hospital access and medical decision-making authority. When an individual is hospitalized due to an injury or illness sustained on the job, his or her spouse is granted hospital access and has the authority to make medical decisions.  Yet, same-sex partners have been denied hospital access and cut-out of decisions by hospital staff and other family members.  In these hard times, this is devastating for the injured person and their partner.  Despite efforts by the Obama Administration to ensure same-sex couples are treated fairly and with dignity by hospital caretakers, discrimination still occurs.  Now that same-sex marriages will be recognized across the country, spouses have the legal right to visit and to take part in medical decisions without the need to show proxies or advance-directives.

  • Workers Compensation. Only a few weeks ago, some states that banned or refused to recognize same-sex marriages denied workers compensation benefits to the partners of workers who died on the job.  At such a tragic time, this economic benefit assists a grieving family and may help keep them from financial ruin, yet same-sex couples were often turned away.  Moving forward, same-sex spouses in every state should no longer have to suffer from discrimination by the state when seeking to collect workers compensation benefits because his or her spouse was killed on the job.

  • Social Security. When a spouse becomes ill, is injured, or dies, Social Security assists spouses and children.  Same-sex spouses and their families are now eligible to receive these benefits, which have in many cases been denied until now.

  • Retirement benefits. The Court’s decision also means same-sex spouses can now elect to receive Social Security and Medicare retirement benefits available to married workers.  Moreover, same-sex spouses will be eligible to receive benefits provided to employees under an employer’s pension plan, as well as tax advantages available to married couples under federal 401(k) or IRA plans.

Notably, hundreds of corporations have voiced their support the Supreme Court’s decision because it promotes diversity, allows them to attract and retain talented workers, and provides a uniform process for establishing employee benefits.  That said, the path to receiving these benefits will have its hurdles, as opponents of marriage equality have already announced their intent to keep fighting.  Thus, groups like Pride at Work, warn that instances of discrimination in the workplace are likely to occur and are calling for a federal non-discrimination law.

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Also from Katie Tracy

Katie Tracy, J.D., joined CPR as a workers’ rights policy analyst in May 2015. Her previous experience includes working for more than two years as a regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, where she advocated for strong regulations to protect health, safety, and the environment.

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