Aug 04, 2014

Whitewood v. Wolf and Pennsylvania Workers

While same-sex marriages have been recognized by the Federal government since last year’s Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, similar recognition was not afforded same-sex couples by the State of Pennsylvania until this past May and the ruling in Whitewood v. Wolf. With this newfound recognition, same-sex couples will face a host of legal and financial issues.

Pennsylvanians might be surprised to learn that Whitewood’s equalizing effects in the workplace may not be as broad as imagined. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. §§ 951, et seq. (“the PHRA”) is the Commonwealth’s leading anti-discrimination statute. The PHRA prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, handicap or disability, age, sex or national origin. Observant readers will note, however, that the scope of the PHRA’s protected class does not include sexual orientation.

Despite its historic ruling, Whitewood does not operate to extend the PHRA to ensure workplace equality. Practically, that means employers have no legal duty to offer health care coverage to same-sex spouses of employees.

Even so, an increasing number of employers are voluntarily offering coverage to same-sex spouses, regardless of the law. Local communities across the Commonwealth also have anti-discrimination provisions in place that may afford same-sex couples heightened protections. Two bills currently before the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Senate Bill No. 300 and House Bill No. 300, both propose extending the PHRA to cover sexual orientation.

Federal protections for married couples now also apply to same-sex couples. For example, same-sex spouses are now recognized for purposes of the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The FMLA offers eligible employees up to twelve weeks of leave annually to deal with certain major life events, including births, adoptions, and medical care for themselves or others. Following Whitewood, FMLA leave will be authorized for eligible employees who must care for a same-sex spouse.

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