By Matt Dunning, Crain News Service
WASHINGTON (Aug. 28, 2013) — Though most organizations support the U.S. Supreme Court's partial overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a substantial majority remain unsure of how the court's ruling will affect their employee benefit plans, according to new survey data.
More than 77 percent of 915 corporate benefit managers, human resource professionals and industry experts polled indicated that they reacted positively to the high court's June 26 ruling that declared unconstitutional Section 3 of DOMA, according to survey results released Aug. 27 by the Brookfield, Wis.-based International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP).
Prior to the court's historic decision, Section 3 of DOMA had defined marriage strictly as the union between a man and a woman for all federal purposes. Absent that provision, legally married same-sex couples' eligibility for federally regulated employment benefits—including employer-sponsored health and retirement plans governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, as well as continuing healthcare coverage for workers and their families under COBRA and guaranteed leave for family and medical emergencies under the Family and Medical Leave Act—will be determined at the state level.
This month, the Department of Labor updated several of its guidance documents regarding emergency leave benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to reflect the Supreme Court's decision, extending FMLA benefits to legally wed gay and lesbian couples residing in states that permit same-sex marriage.
Still waiting on ERISA guidance
However, private employers that are subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) are waiting for federal regulators to determine which state's law will control an employer's obligation to extend their group health and retirement plans to gay and lesbian married couples. Until that guidance is published, 66 percent of organizations polled in the IFEBP's survey said they are at least somewhat reluctant to make changes to their benefit strategies, with more than 39 percent indicating they are in "wait-and-see mode."
In July, the American Benefits Council published a letter urging regulators to adopt a "state of celebration" rule—which would recognize all legally performed marriages, regardless of the couple's state of residency—for any mandated expansion of private employers' coverage obligations to their employees' same-sex spouses.
As of Aug. 6, the date that the survey was completed, less than 13 percent of organizations polled said they have begun adjusting their benefit plans to conform to the court's ruling, according to the IFEBP's survey.
Nearly 55 percent of organizations surveyed already offer benefits to same-sex spouses, domestic partners and/or civil unions, with larger employers more likely to sponsor benefits for same-sex partners than smaller benefits.
This report appeared in Business Insurance magazine, a Chicago-based sister publication of Tire Business.