The new US Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage is likely to result in four important changes in the workplace. The changes are more of a technical adjustment in rights than a major change, because many employers were already offering benefits to same-sex couples.
First, most employers will extend health-insurance benefits to all married couples, regardless of gender. Prior to the ruling, this had become a messy legal issue. Married, opposite-sex couples have been entitled to health insurance benefits in every state and regardless where they got married. But because same-sex marriages were considered legal in just a small number of states, the right to employer-sponsored health insurance was spotty at best. Now employers are likely to extend health insurance to all married couples in every state.
The second change relates to the first. Now that the barrier to marriage for same-sex couples is gone, many employers will stop offering health insurance to unmarried same-sex couples – those in what have become known as “domestic-partner relationships.” This was a work-around arrangement created to extend coverage to those in long-term relationships who could not legally marry. Now that marriage is permissible for everyone, unmarried same-sex couples will probably be treated like unmarried opposing-sex couples and find themselves ineligible for spousal insurance coverage unless they marry.
Third, the change will allow same-sex couples to sue for marital-status discrimination in those states that forbid it. Marital-status discrimination exists when your employer treats you differently because you are married, or because you are single. (It doesn’t take into account who you’re married to – only the fact that you are or are not married.) Not all states recognize this kind of discrimination – Florida happens to be one of the few that does – and there is no federal protection nationally against discrimination based on your marital status. But same-sex couples will now enjoy the same protection against this kind of discrimination as anyone else.
Fourth, the change will extend protection to same-sex couples for laws like the FMLA, which allows medical leave for the employee and members of the employee’s immediate family. This law was constructed around the concept of marriage, so it hasn’t generally allowed time off to care for a same-sex “domestic partner.” The federal government adopted rules to extend coverage to unmarried same-sex couples after the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was ruled unconstitutional, but those rules were suspended by a federal judge. This new Supreme Court decision definitively clears the way for FMLA leave for same-sex married couples.
Unmarried couples of any gender will still be out of luck.