New civil union law: How must employers respond?

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in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,HR Management,Human Resources

Now that New Jersey has become the third state to allow civil union among same-sex couples, employers need to rethink some of their HR policies and practices, particularly with employee benefits.

In October, a landmark state supreme court ruling expanded the rights of same-sex couples who are involved in a committed relationship. (Lewis v. Harris) The court said same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights as married opposite-sex couples and ordered the legislature to pass a law allowing either same-sex unions or same-sex marriage.

The N.J. legislature voted last month to create civil unions. The bill passed the Assembly 56-19 and the Senate 23-12. Vermont and Connecticut have civil-union laws and California has a similar domestic-partner law. Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage.

The new law will require New Jersey employers to “bridge the inequality gap” by providing equal rights and benefits to employees with same-sex spouses. An early look at the legislation suggests employers will have to provide the following benefits to employees who have same-sex partners:

  • Health insurance benefits for the same-sex partner of an employee (if the employer already provides those benefits to its employees’ opposite-sex spouses).
  • Family leave benefits to an employee to care for a same-sex partner who has a serious health condition.  

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