On June 24, 2011, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Marriage Equality Act, Bill No. A08354. Effective July 24, 2011, the Marriage Equality Act (also referred to in this post as “the Marriage Equality Act” or “the Act”) amends the New York Domestic Relations Law to grant same-sex couples the ability to enter into civil marriages in New York State. The Act contains an exemption for religious organizations.
The Marriage Equality Act further provides that no “legal status, effect, right, privilege, protection or responsibility relating to marriage, deriving from any [New York State] statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of [State] law, shall differ based on the parties being or having been of the same sex rather than a different sex.”
The impact of the New York Marriage Equality Act is blunted by the federal Defense of Marriage Act, 1 U.S.C. § 7 and 28 U.S.C. § 1738C (“DOMA”). This federal statute, enacted in 1996, states that, for purposes of federal law: “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
The Marriage Equality Act has many effects on employers in New York State; this post does not purport to examine all of them. Rather, this post discusses the impact of the Act on employers in New York with respect to wrongful termination, workers’ compensation, and continuation of health care coverage.
The New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290-301, prohibits employers with four or more employees from discharging from employment or refusing to hire an individual, and from discriminating against an individual in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of the individual’s age, race, creed, color, national origin, “sexual orientation,” military status, gender, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, “marital status,” or domestic violence victim status. So the Marriage Equality Act, in conjunction with the State Human Rights Law, renders it unlawful for an employer in New York to fire or refuse to hire an individual because he or she is, or is not, in a same-sex marriage.
The New York Workers’ Compensation Law provides cash benefits and medical care for workers who become disabled because of an injury arising out of and in the course of their employment. N.Y. Work. Comp. Law § 10. If the injury causes death, death benefits are payable to worker’s “surviving spouse” and dependents. N.Y. Work. Comp. Law § 16. The Marriage Equality Act, together with the Workers’ Compensation Law, includes individuals in a same-sex marriage as “spouses” who are entitled to to workers’ compensation death benefits.
Continuation Of Health Care Coverage
Under New York State’s “mini” COBRA Law, most employers with 20 or more employees which provide group health plans must offer each qualified beneficiary who would otherwise lose coverage under the plan because of a “qualifying event” an opportunity to elect continuation of the coverage received immediately before the qualifying event. See N.Y. Ins. Law §§ 3221(m), 4303(k), 4305(e). In general, group health plans are group plans providing medical benefits or other non-retirement benefits.
Qualifying events include, among other circumstances, the termination (other than for gross misconduct) of a covered employee’s employment. A qualified beneficiary is any individual who, on the day before a qualifying event, is covered under a health plan maintained by the employer or a covered employee by virtue of being, among other categories of individuals, the spouse of the covered employee. The Marriage Equality Act, along with New York’s mini COBRA law, includes individuals in a same-sex marriage among the spouses (of covered employees) to whom employers in the State must offer continuation of health care coverage.