Same-sex spouses in Washington gained many employment benefits and rights under federal law when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) this June. As this US News article notes, because federal law now recognizes same-sex marriages, LGBT couples will now enjoy federal rights such as tax-free health benefits for spouses and protection under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In addition, spouses of federal employees will be able to access federal health care and survivor benefits. What do these benefits mean to same-sex spouses?
Tax-Free Health Benefits
When an employer pays for some or all of an employee’s health insurance costs, the employee does not have to pay federal taxes for that subsidy. That tax benefit is extended to health benefits for the employee’s spouse. However, under DOMA, that rule did not apply to same-sex marriages. Instead, health benefits paid for a same-sex spouse would count as taxable income. For example, if an employer paid $5,000 for the employee’s health insurance and $5,000 for the spouse’s, the employee would be taxed for the $5,000 that covered the spouse’s health insurance.
With DOMA gone, employees can share their health benefits with same-sex spouses without those benefits being taxed. Employers might also benefit, because their payroll tax liability is based on the taxable incomes of their employees. If the employee’s taxable income is lower, then the employer’s payroll taxes should be lower.
FLMA and ADA
Federal law provides protection to employees whose spouses become seriously ill or disabled. When DOMA was in effect, same-sex couples were denied these protections because their marriages were not recognized under federal law. Now, in states that recognize same-sex marriage, these legal protections apply equally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
Under the FMLA, if an eligible employee’s spouse has a serious health condition, that employee may take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave without risking the loss of his job. During that time, the employee is also entitled to continued health coverage. When FMLA leave is over, the employee is entitled to return to the same job or an equivalent job.
The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating on account of disability, even if it is the employee’s spouse who is disabled. That means that an employer cannot fire, refuse to hire, or take other unfavorable actions against an employee on account of a spouse’s disability. In addition, an employer cannot deny an employee health care coverage because he has a disabled spouse.
Federal Employee Benefits
Spouses of federal employees, including military personnel, are eligible for several employment-related benefits, the most important being health care coverage and survivor benefits under federal retirement programs. Under DOMA, these benefits were denied to same-sex spouses of federal employees. Now, the federal government is working to update its benefits policies so that both same-sex and opposite-sex spouses are eligible for benefits.
It is important to note that these federal employment benefits and rights are limited to couples who are legally married. They do not yet apply to employees in domestic partnerships or employees who did not get married in a state that legally recognizes same-sex marriage. It is also unclear whether these benefits would apply if a legally married LGBT couple moves to a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. An employment lawyer can help same-sex couples understand their new employment rights and benefits under federal law.