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Ready or Not, FMLA Standards are Changing

In late February, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a final rule to revise specific conditions in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The new rule modifies the definition of a “spouse,” extending federal job-protected leave benefits to eligible workers in legal, same-sex marriages.

By changing the FMLA’s definition of a spouse, the Department of Labor aligns with the ruling passed down from the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor. In that 2013 case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Edith Windsor, the surviving spouse in a same-sex couple, and found Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional. That section 3 interpreted “marriage” and “spouse” as a union or individual of the opposite sex.

The Past

Previously, the definition of a “spouse” included individuals in legal, same-sex marriages but only if the worker resided in a state where the marriage was viewed as constitutional. This was referred to as the “state of residence” rule. Under that rule, if the state viewed the marriage as unconstitutional, same-sex marriages were not recognized in FMLA regulations and, therefore, not protected under it. However, with the Department of Labor’s final rule, this is no longer the case.

The Present

With the recent revision, eligibility for FMLA protection now will be granted based on the law of the location the marriage originated. In doing so, the Department of Labor eliminates the “state of residence” rule and in its place initiates the “place of celebration” provision, which binds the legal definition of marriage held by the state where the person currently resides and applies the law of the state where the marriage was entered. Therefore, the final rule now covers all legally married couples with consistent federal leave rights, regardless of the spouse’s gender and current residence.

The Future Impact for HR

The final rule could have a vital impact on HR departments across the country, as company policies will have to shift in order to comply with the regulation. Under the FMLA’s extended definition of a spouse, businesses will be required to grant eligible employees in legal, same-sex marriages access to unpaid, job-protected leave in order to care for a spouse with serious health problems, regardless of where they live.

Beginning March 27, the final rule takes effect and organizational policies nationwide will have to comply with the FMLA revisions. As the political landscape continues to shift around many hot-button issues, it is imperative for businesses to keep an eye (or two) on government policies and their effect on department personnel and day-to-day operations.