End of DOMA Means Changes for Employers

employee screening, employee background checkThe Supreme Court decision yesterday that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has some implications for employers, but not for those that already offer benefits to partners of gay workers or to spouses in same-sex marriages in the states where it’s legal.

For now, the ruling only affects employers in the 12 states and the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal or will soon be. Benefits such as pre-tax health insurance payments, 401(k) retirement plans and pensions will change, in that spouses in same-sex couples will automatically be considered beneficiaries, unless the employee states otherwise. Prior to the ruling, only heterosexual spouses were automatically considered beneficiaries, which led to issues should a gay employee died without naming his or her spouse as beneficiary.

Employers will need to change benefit plan documents to ensure equal treatment of all married couples. They will not longer be required to treat the value of employer-paid health insurance provided to same-sex spouses as taxable income. And, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) will also apply to caring for same-sex spouses. COBRA, flexible health spending accounts, and other spouse-related practices will have to apply equally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Almost two-thirds of Fortune 500 firms already offer health benefits for domestic partners. Employers who don’t, in states where same-sex marriage is not yet legal, can get ahead of the curve by initiating domestic partner programs.

Nearly 300 major employers, including Johnson & Johnson, Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup signed onto a brief arguing that DOMA was bad for business, and urged the Supreme Court to strike it down. Prior to the decision, the employers were forced to treat differently those employees in states where same-sex marriage is legal.

Even more conservative companies have seen that keeping two sets of rules and books and administrative duties is expensive. So are the legal mistakes that can easily occur. Apart from financial concerns, more companies are recognizing that being inclusive is great for employee morale and recruitment, and, as Paul Guzzi, the CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce said on National Public Radio, “Talent is talent.”

That may be why no companies filed a brief arguing that DOMA was beneficial for business and needed to stay in place!

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