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How are spouses defined in the Family and Medical Leave Act?

California employment laws provide protections for workers that aren't available in other parts of the country. Some laws like the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act have overlapping provisions. The extended protections for Los Angeles workers highlight the laws' differences.

Both laws require companies with at least 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks' leave to workers under certain conditions, like the need to care for a new child or a seriously ill spouse. The word spouse is not defined the same way in the FMLA as it is in the CFRA. In California, the definition applies to all spouses whether married partners are heterosexual or gay.

A decade ago, the federal leave law was applied according to the laws in the states where married couples lived. A June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling backed this provision, but problems for gay couples persisted. Legally married gay spouses could be denied rights under the FMLA in states that did not recognize gay marriage.

The federal law was reworded again in February 2015. The definition of spouse under the FMLA is now based on laws in states where couples were married. Federal family and medical leave protections could no longer be denied to same-sex spouses married in California, where gay marriage is legal, because couples moved to states where gay marriages were banned or unacknowledged.

The legal protections offered in the FMLA to gay spouses do not apply to registered domestic partners. But, the CFRA picks up where the federal law ends. Registered domestic partners in California have the same leave rights under the CFRA as straight or gay spouses.

Employers know these employment rules but some choose not to follow them. Employment attorneys represent workers wrongfully denied medical and family leave, health benefits while on leave or a job at the end of the leave period.

Source: Monterey Herald, "Sara Boyns, Workplace Law: Changes to Family Medical Leave Act definition of ‘spouse’," Sara Boyns, accessed April. 02, 2015

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