Pennsylvania Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Broadens FMLA’s Reach

Last week Pennsylvania joined 18 other states (including its eight neighbors in the Northeastern United States) that recognize gay and lesbian couples’ right to marry. In Whitewood v. Wolf, federal judge John Jones III invalidated a 1996 Pennsylvania statute defining marriage as “[a] civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife,” and deeming same-sex marriages “void.” Soon after, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett announced that the Commonwealth would not appeal the ruling.

The legal ramifications for Pennsylvania employees and employers are far-reaching. The ruling’s effect on employee rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is particularly significant.

The FMLA mandates that covered employers permit their employees to take unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for events such as:

  • the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;
  • the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;
  • to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition; or
  • a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.

Before the case was decided, Pennsylvania employers were not required to extend these rights to same-sex married couples because the word “spouse” was interpreted based on the definition adopted by the state in which the employee resides. Now that Pennsylvania’s heterosexist definition of marriage has been overturned, and the term “spouse” has changed such that same-sex marriage partners may be “spouses” under Pennsylvania law, same-sex and heterosexual married couples should have the same FMLA rights.

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