By Anna A. Cohen

In its Agency Rule List for Spring 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has proposed to amend the Regulations implementing the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by revising the definition of “spouse” in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307 (U.S. June 26, 2013).   In Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to legally married, same-sex couples.  The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. Eligible employees may take FMLA leave, among other reasons, to care for the employee’s spouse who has a serious health condition.

1. Place of Residence Definition

In August 2013, the DOL issued updated FMLA guidance documents as a result of President Obama’s directive to the DOL to coordinate with other federal agencies to implement the Windsor decision.  This initial guidance removed references to DOMA, affirming the availability of spousal leave based on same-sex marriages under the FMLA; however, the DOL only expanded benefits to same-sex married couples residing in states that recognize same-sex marriage.  For example, updated DOL Fact Sheet # 28F: Qualifying Reasons for Leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act defines a “spouse” as “a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the state where the employee resides, including ‘common law’ marriage and same-sex marriage.”  This narrow definition of “spouse” is significant to retailers with locations in multiple states since only 19 states, to date, recognize same-sex marriage, whether by court decision, legislation or popular vote.  If the DOL codifies the place of residence definition of “spouse,” retailers with employees in a same-sex marriage who work in a state where their marriage is legally recognized, but live in a state where it is not, would not be entitled to FMLA benefits to care for their spouse. 

2. Place of Celebration Definition

Another option would be for the DOL to broaden the definition of “spouse” to recognize legally married individuals under any state law, regardless of the employee’s residence.  This definition would be consistent with the DOL’s September 2013 Guidance to employee benefit plans, which took a “place of celebration” approach to the definition of “spouse” and “marriage” for purposes of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  In its ERISA Guidance, the DOL defined the term “spouse” as any “individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages.”  If the DOL were to adopt the broad place of celebration definition of “spouse” contained in its ERISA Guidance when it amends the FMLA Regulations, FMLA benefits would be available to all legally married spouses, regardless of the definition of “marriage” in the state where the employee lives or where the employer operates.  Accordingly, employers would look to the place of celebration to determine whether employees are entitled to spousal benefits under the FMLA.  For example, retailers with employees who legally enter into a same-sex marriage in the Northeast would be considered legally married for purposes of the FMLA in all of the retailer’s locations, even if they subsequently live or work in a state which does not recognize that marriage.  

Regardless of the definition adopted by the DOL, employers in all states must be alert to this impending change.  Once the FMLA Regulations are amended, employers should review all FMLA-related policies, procedures, forms and notices.  Employers should also be aware of their obligations under state and local leave laws that may provide greater leave rights than the FMLA, such as leave to care for same-sex partners in civil unions or domestic partnerships. We will continue to monitor the DOL’s position on same sex marriage as it affects the FMLA and other laws and regulations.

Our blog contributor Anna A. Cohen, an Associate in the Labor and Employment practice at Epstein Becker Green, was quoted in an article titled “TGI Fridays Busted for Family Leave Violations.”

Following is an excerpt:

The leave policy of TGI Fridays violates the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the popular restaurant chain has agreed to change its company-wide policy and pay one employee back wages, according to the Department of Labor (DOL).

The DOL announced the company’s agreement on Aug. 7, following an investigation of a TGI Fridays restaurant in Shreveport, La. There, an employee took FMLA-covered leave but the company didn’t reinstate the employee to the same or equivalent position, as required by the law.

“If violations cannot be resolved, the Department of Labor may bring an action in court to compel compliance,” explains Anna Cohen, an employment lawyer with Epstein Becker Green in New York. “An employee may also file a private action against an employer for violations.”

In this case, it appears that while the initial complaint was likely made by the employee who was denied immediate reinstatement after taking protected leave, the DOL’s investigation uncovered problems with the way the restaurant was notifying its employees of their rights under the FMLA.

Under the FMLA, according to Cohen, employers must:

  • post, in conspicuous places, a notice explaining the Act’s provisions and provide information concerning the procedures for filing complaints with the WHD
  • include the notice in employee handbooks or other written guidance to employees when they are hired
  • notify employees of their eligibility to take FMLA leave within five business days once a request is made
  • explain to employees taking leave their rights and responsibilities including their specific expectations and obligations and any consequences of failing to meet them
  • notify employees in writing whether or not the leave will actually be counted as FMLA leave

“As a general rule, it is important for employers to ensure that their FMLA policies and procedures are in compliance with the law,” Cohen points out.