Why Marriage Equality Matters to the Labor Market

by Jay Shannon, 2013-2014 Co-Editor-in-Chief

The Supreme Court’s recent foray into the rights of gays and lesbians under the U.S. Constitution has catapulted the issue to the forefront of legal discussion. Noticeably absent in many publicized conversations is the impact of existing law on our current labor market in the United States. The Court’s rulings in both cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor, will have a significant impact on the U.S. Labor market.

In their Amicus Brief to the Court the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) proffered an analysis on an often-overlooked issue—gay and lesbian access to work-related benefits under the law. This brief takes aim at the disparities between married couples and their long-term unmarried counterparts. The following details just a few distinctions between the two groups under both Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.

Employer-sponsored health insurance is a major source of healthcare coverage for working Americans and their families in the United States. Many employers provide this benefit only to couples with marriage licenses recognized by the state of their residence. While it is true that many employers do extend benefits to same-sex couples, they are still subject to heavier burdens of added taxes and fees that legally married couples do not suffer. Additionally, certain federal statutes such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) use spousal definitions to determine benefits, leaving unmarried partners outside the reach of the safety net. These financial burdens place members of the gay and lesbian community without recourse, and impose expensive costs on them, ultimately leading to increased work hours and a decreased take-home pay after taxes.

Perhaps most interesting is the resulting impact of a relationship’s legal recognition on a couple’s performance at work. As noted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the institution of marriage “symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of [] committed relationships.” The consideration that only straight couples may share this legitimization creates an inherent distinction, leaving gays and lesbians without equal recognition. This can manifest itself in multiple negative outlets, such as differential treatment at the workplace.

This distinction is also likely to impact the perspectives of the children of same-sex families. A distinction the Court may recognize as dispositive in their majority opinion. During oral arguments in Perry, Justice Kennedy—the highly sought after swing vote—expressed his hesitation in finding against gay and lesbian families with children. “There are some 40,000 children in California . . . that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case . . . . ”

The holdings in both cases are likely to have a profound impact on the lives and professions of gay and lesbian couples across the United States. The Court’s opinions in both cases will be released sometime this summer.