Pennsylvania’s gay marriage judicial ruling likely to affect businesses

A federal ruling overturning Pennsylvania’s 1996 law banning same-sex marriage could affect the bottom line for business owners in the state.

The case involving 11 plaintiffs was scheduled for trial June 9, but U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a summary judgment May 20. The plaintiffs had argued the law denied them the same legal protection and tax benefits afforded to married couples, and Jones agreed.

Philip Miles, an employment lawyer from State College, said the biggest changes for employers — assuming the state does not seek a temporary suspension of Jones’ order from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals while that court reviews his decision — will come via the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In general, FMLA requires employers to allow employees to take leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. The law defines a spouse as “a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law in the state where the employee resides.” This language will seemingly require Pennsylvania employers to grant leave to employees to care for a same-sex spouse if the employee resides in a state that recognizes the marriage.

Miles said that is the case with employees from, for example, Delaware, who work in Pennsylvania. Those employees in same-sex marriages recognized by Delaware are eligible under federal law for FMLA leave, he said.

“Suddenly you’ll have a lot more spouses who will be covered by FMLA leave,” he added.

Defining ‘spouse’

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Likewise, many other statutes and regulations extend benefits to employees’ spouses. The key legal point that likely will keep benefits plan managers, attorneys and payroll administrators busy is what defines a “spouse.”

Some of these laws and regulations include the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which generally requires employers to offer employees and their spouses extended health plan coverage after a qualifying event, such as termination. Employees’ spouses also have certain rights regarding retirement benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

“I don’t think there will be a lot of immediate legal action, but it opens the door for the same issues that affect heterosexual couples,” Miles said.

Levana Layendecker, communications director at Equality Pennsylvania, said legalizing same-sex marriage, along with the accompanying benefits, would only deepen the pool of qualified workers for businesses.

John Hilton

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