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
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.
If your company needs assistance or guidance on a labor or employment law issue and your company is located
in the New York City area, call Attorney David S. Rich at (212) 209-3972.
Visit the New York Business Litigation and Employment Attorneys Blog
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What will be the effect when this law is reversed? As you may know, it passed by a slim margin and the National Organization for Marriage is stating it will take steps to eliminate representatives that supported the law.