Companies will likely take a wait-and-see approach to figure out this week's Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage will affect workplace benefit plans.
The federal government is expected to release guidelines in the coming weeks but employers should move quickly to address the issue with its workers, a leading HR firm said Wednesday.
"Employees are going to want to know and this is probably a good time to put something out," said Catherine Stamm of Mercer's Washington Resource Group, an international human resources and financial resources consulting firm. "It doesn't have to be specific. Rather, (the statement) could be the company is reviewing the law and waiting for regulatory guidance."
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. President Bill Clinton signed the bill in 1996 that prevented same-sex couples legally married from receiving the same benefits (such as tax breaks or insurance coverage) as heterosexual couples under federal law.
Human resources officials say the ruling will likely have a broad impact on matters such as spousal protections, rollover rights for retirement plans and potential tax consequences. The federal government will also have to clarify enrollment rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as well as leave rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Companies will likely have to reprogram tax reporting systems, revisit domestic-partner policies and update enrollment forms, and may even have to file refund claims for taxes paid on the value of same-sex spouses' health-care coverage, according to Mercer.
Stamm said the impact of the ruling is unclear, especially in states that don't recognize same-sex marriages. The federal government could step in and require those states to recognize same-sex marriages for benefits or leave it up to individual states.
"There are still many uncertainties and what exactly applies," she said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement supporting the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the law and noted that the agency will work quickly to issue guidelines for employers and its workers.
"The Department of Health and Human Services will work with the Department of Justice to review all relevant federal statutes and ensure this decision is implemented swiftly and smoothly," Sebelius said.
Stamm said most of the companies she has spoken with since the DOMA ruling will wait for federal guidance before making any changes. But the ruling could also create sweeping changes for common-law marriages that some companies might not anticipate, she said.
Corporations and government agencies that already offer domestic-partner benefits won't likely be affected by the changes. Stamm said it's still important they follow the Health and Human Services guidelines and implement the changes within the government timeline.
For smaller businesses with a limited HR staff, Stamm said they should consider meeting with an outside HR consultant or their labor attorney to make sure they are complying with the new law.
"I would recommend looking at everything that affects spouses and families and determining how the ruling might affect their company," she said. "For some companies the federal court ruling may not have that big of an implication, but for others, they may have a lot of work ahead of them."
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