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Same-sex marriage could have impact on employment discrimination

Now that the celebrations have died down a bit after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, many people in Minnesota are starting to wonder what this decision will mean. Clearly, it will mean that married same-sex couples in Minnesota cannot be denied the same federal benefits that go to heterosexual married couples. Less clear is how the ruling will affect the laws that are supposed to prohibit employment discrimination.

There are more than 1,000 federal laws and regulations that affect married couples more than single people, from tax laws to health care benefits and many of them are related specifically to employment. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees to take time off from work to care for an ill or injured family member, including a spouse. The Supreme Court's decision means that employers will have to recognize same-sex spouses in granting FMLA leave. In Minnesota, this shouldn't be a surprise because the state has legalized same-sex marriage. But it's not entirely clear what this means for employees in states that do not yet recognize same-sex marriage.

Another factor that may change along with the DOMA ruling is the tax on employee benefits. Because health insurance and other benefits are often taxed as income, employers will have to adjust the way they pay taxes from their benefits packages for employees who are in same-sex marriages now that the federal government is no longer discriminating against their marriage.

There are many other workplace-related laws and regulations that will be affected by the ruling, and no doubt it will take some time before employers and employees figure out how to adapt to these changes. In the mean time, the Minnesota Human Rights Act provides some protection against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- and has done so for 20 years.

As the laws regarding same-sex marriage change, it's important for all workers to keep an eye on how their employers respond. Employees who feel that they have been discriminated against or otherwise unfairly treated at work should seek out help understanding their legal rights.

Source: MPR News, "Employers Face Changes After Same-Sex-Marriage Ruling," Wendy Kaufman, July 9, 2013

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