Thursday, September 19, 2013

Policy & Politics

Labour Department grants employee benefits to same-sex couples
WASHINGTON -- New regulatory guidance issued Wednesday by the U. S. Labour Department requires that Individuals in same-sex marriages be entitled to the employer benefits of their spouse even if they live in a state that doesn't recognise their marriage or union. 
“This decision represents a historic step toward equality for all American families,” Labour Secretary Thomas E. Perez said in an e-mailed statement. “The department plans to issue additional guidance in the coming months as we continue to consult with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies.”
Prior to Wednesday's ruling, employers in states that do not recognise gay marriage did not always extend benefits to same-sex spouses.
The decision comes as a result of the the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June to overturn part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which had prohibited same-sex couples from transferring retirement accounts between spouses in the same way as heterosexual couples.
This is a new guidance to plans, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, participants and beneficiaries on the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Windsor impact on the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
According to the guidance the terms "spouse" and "marriage" in Title I of ERISA and in related department regulations should be read to include same-sex couples legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognises such marriages, regardless of where they currently live.
“We thank Secretary of Labour Perez for his leadership on this critical issue for thousands of same-sex couples and their families”, said Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “This decision is a huge victory for all families, as it affirms equality and fairness for same-sex couples who until recently were denied these benefits.”   
The most common benefit for spouses in pension plans involves payments to surviving spouses after the death of a recipient. According to the new guidance, employers can no longer discriminate against same-sex couples in distribution of these surviving spouse benefits. It also means that regardless of where couples live, the pension plan or 401(k) plan must extend benefits to same-sex couples to the same extent it would to opposite-sex couples. 
Last month the Internal Revenue Service announced that same-sex spouses in all 50 states and U.S. territories will be treated as married under federal tax law even if local and state authorities don’t recognise their marriages. Prior to that decision, the IRS was prohibited from letting married same-sex couples file joint tax returns.
There are more than 130,000 married, same-sex couples in the U.S., according to estimates from the 2010 U. S. Census. They have the ability to get legally married in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act Introduced in U.S. House and Senate
WASHINGTON -- A bill introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Susan Collins (R-ME) in the Senate Thursday would extend employee benefit programs to cover the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees in concert with those benefits that already cover legally married spouses of federal employees.  The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2013 (DPBO) would place the federal government on equal footing with similar benefits offered by a majority of Fortune 500 companies. 
“We’ve made great progress for committed, same-sex couples in America but we still have work to do to move freedom and fairness forward,” said Baldwin. 
“This bill helps provide federal employees and their domestic partners equal access and opportunity to the benefits that businesses across our country are already providing.  It’s time for the federal government to lead as an equal opportunity employer and I’m proud to work across the aisle with Senator Collins to advance that leadership.”
A companion bill was also introduced in the House of Representatives U.S. Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA).
Both measures would provide the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees access to all federal employee benefits current federal employee spouses receive, no matter what state they live in or whether or not they have access to legal marriage in their home state.
Almost 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies now offer health benefits to employees’ domestic partners, up from just 25 percent in 2000.  Overall, more than 8,000 private-sector companies make such benefits available to employees’ domestic partners, as do the governments of 18 states and at least 150 cities and towns.
Under DPBO, a federal employee and their same-sex domestic partner would be eligible to participate in federal retirement, life insurance, health, workers’ compensation, and Family and Medical Leave benefits to the same extent as married employees and their spouses.  Such employees and their domestic partners would likewise assume the same obligations as those that apply to married employees and their spouses, such as anti-nepotism rules and financial disclosure requirements. 
This action follows yesterday's announcement by U. S. Labour Secretary Thomas Perez that established new guidelines that were issued Wednesday by his department which requires that individuals in same-sex marriages be entitled to the employer benefits of their spouse even if they live in a state that doesn't recognise their marriage or union.