On February 25, 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a Final Rule changing the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) definition of “spouse.” Effective March 27, 2015, spouses in same-sex marriages shall have the same opportunity as spouses of heterosexual marriages to exercise FMLA rights regardless of where they live. Therefore, even though Ohio prohibits same-sex marriage, if a couple was legally married outside of Ohio in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, the same-sex spouse(s) must receive the protections of FMLA.

The U.S. Department of Labor issued this new rule in the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Windsor where the Court deemed the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of spouse and marriage, which was limited to heterosexual marriages, unconstitutional.

The Final Rule modifies the definition of “spouse” in several ways.

  • The definition of “spouse” will use a “place of celebration” rule rather than a “state of residence” rule. This means that the same-sex spouses who reside in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, but were legally married in a state that does, will be considered spouses under FMLA.
  • The definition of “spouse” will expressly include persons in lawfully recognized same-sex and common law marriages, as well as marriages that were validly entered into outside of the United States, so long as those marriages could have been entered into in at least one state.

This change is intended to create a consistent application of FMLA rights across the country, even when different states have different laws regarding the underlying marriages. Further, this definitional change means that eligible employees, including those in a same-sex marriage, regardless of where they live, will be able to: take FMLA leave to care for their spouse with a serious health condition; take qualifying exigency leave due to their spouse’s covered military service; or take military caregiver leave for their spouse so long as the couple was legally married in a state that recognized the marriage.

Another change within this Final Rule entitles eligible employees to take FMLA leave to care for their stepchild (child of employee’s same-sex spouse) regardless of whether the in loco parentis requirement of providing day-to-day care or financial support for the child is met. This Final Rule also entitles eligible employees to take FMLA leave to care for a stepparent who is a same-sex spouse of the employee’s parent, regardless of whether the stepparent ever stood in loco parentis to the employee.

Therefore, effective March 27, 2015, employers covered by FMLA must follow the Final Rule changes promulgated by the U.S. Department of Labor, including this new definition of “spouse.” Currently, this change will only have FMLA implications, and will not impact other employment aspects for Ohio school districts (i.e. sick leave policies, benefits, etc.).  However, by the end of June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court should decide on whether state same-sex marriage bans are constitutional. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides that state same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, same-sex married couples will be entitled to all benefits received by heterosexual married couples.