On June 26, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that requires all states to recognize and issue licenses for same-sex marriages. The decision is one of the most significant changes to constitutional law in many years, and its impact is far-reaching, including implications for employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also issued a decision regarding the coverage of sexual orientation discrimination at the federal level. Here’s what employers need to know about these recent advances in civil rights for their LGBTQ employees.
Sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sex – also forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the EEOC. The EEOC concluded that “sex-based considerations,” such as sexual orientation, constitute sex discrimination.
While the EEOC will start accepting charges alleging sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII’s sex-discrimination prohibition, courts may not rule in their favor if there are no local or state laws in place to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Currently, only 21 states and the District of Columbia ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, so winning a case would be an uphill battle in other locations. This change does, however, pave the way for future changes to anti-discrimination laws, such as the adoption of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
Employee benefits extended
In light of both of these changes, employers should extend all spousal privileges associated with employment to same-sex married couples, including:
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights: Same-sex spouses are now eligible to take FMLA leave for qualifying conditions or military deployment
- Benefits plans: Any benefit plans that include spousal participation – such as group medical policies or other fringe benefits plans – are now open to same-sex spouses
- Company policies: Other company policies with spouse-specific terms (including bereavement leave, non-FMLA medical leave or other time off policies) will now apply to same-sex married couples
Additionally, the tax treatment of both same-sex and opposite-sex couples is now equalized. Prior to Obergefell, state and federal tax laws governing same-sex couples differed. Depending on the state, employers previously faced additional payroll taxes for same-sex married employees, and workers had to shoulder additional income taxes. Now, federal and state tax treatment is equal for all married couples – which should make benefits easier for companies to administer.