Most legally married same-sex couples will be entitled to take up to 12 weeks leave to care for an ailing spouse regardless of whether the state in which they live recognizes their marriage under a rule issued Wednesday by the Department of Labor.
The new rule is the last major step in a series of moves by the Obama administration to extend federal rights to gay couples under the Supreme Court's Windsor decision two years ago. It extends the right to medical leave to legally married same-sex couples living in states that do not recognize their marriage.
The rule applies primarily to couples who wed in a state that allows same-sex marriages but who live in one that does not. Under the new rule, marriages for the purposes of the federal law on medical leaves will be defined by the state in which the ceremony occurred rather than the one in which the couple lives.
Gay-rights groups hailed the change. "This is very significant when you think of the myriad ways having your marriage recognized. Being able to take leave from your job to care for your spouse at a time of need is very important," said Ian Thompson of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington office.
"No legally married same-sex couple should be denied their federal family leave rights simply because they happen to live in a state that disrespects their marriage," said Human Rights Campaign Government Affairs Director David Stacy.
Since the Supreme Court extended legal protections to married gay couples in the Windsor case, the Obama administration has made numerous changes to federal rules to protect same-sex couples who live in states that do not recognize their marriages, including allowing them to file joint federal tax returns.
Two areas where the administration cannot act without a change in federal law are Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits. However, a Supreme Court ruling expected in June on gay marriage could extend marriage rights nationwide.
The rule announced Wednesday, which will go into effect March 27, applies to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which granted the right to emergency leaves to all government employees and to employees of companies with 50 or more workers.
In addition to caring for a sick spouse, the act allows leaves for caring for a sick stepchild or stepparent.