Minnesota's new same-sex marriage statute could impact employment laws

When Governor Mark Dayton signed Minnesota's marriage equality act into law on May 14, 2013, same-sex couples rejoiced being given the right to marry their partners instead of forming civil/domestic partnerships. When the law goes into effect on August 1, 2013, gay and lesbian couples around the state will enjoy new rights and new responsibilities. Actually, the impact of the new law will go far beyond the marriage itself, having ramifications in the employment, tax, insurance, estate planning and parenting/adoption arenas. These effects, particularly when combined with the Supreme Court's striking down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), will be monumental.

The impact on employment laws

While Minnesota has a pre-existing prohibition against sexual orientation discrimination (passed into law with the 1993 revisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act) in the workplace, same-sex marriages will still have an impact on both workers and employers. The impact will particularly be felt in the employee benefits realm, and this is where the interplay of the new marriage equality act and the revised DOMA will be important.

Since DOMA had previously defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and non-insured benefits plans governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) were bound by DOMA, prior law would dictate that ERISA-based benefits were not available to legally married same-sex couples. Now that part of DOMA has been struck down and Minnesota now offers marriage equality, a new world of employee benefits will presumably open up to Minnesota's same-sex married couples, including:

• Retirement plans

• 401k accounts

• Health savings accounts

• Health reimbursement accounts

• Flexible spending accounts

• Self-funded health/welfare programs

Current protections

Even without the right to marry (until August 1, anyway), gay and lesbian individuals living in Minnesota have long-enjoyed a measure of protection against workplace discrimination and harassment on the basis of their sexual orientation. These protections are part of the MHRA, and are currently celebrating their 20th year of ensuring that alternative sexualities are not treated unfairly by the state's workplaces, housing market representatives, public facilities, education providers, credit lenders, government agencies and business contract agents.

The same protections also extend to bisexuals and the transgendered. Fellow employees and employers are, under state law, prohibited from harassing (which can be physical, verbal or written/illustrated) and discriminating against (including passing over GLBT workers for promotions and merit increases when similarly performing heterosexual workers were given those opportunities or for not hiring someone based on their sexual preference or gender identity) GLBT employees and applicants.

It remains to be seen how much both the Minnesota's allowing same-sex marriages and the revision of the federal DOMA will have on the state's employers. In the meantime, though, it is important that existing laws prohibiting harassment and discrimination are enforced. Are you an employee who has been treated unfairly because of your sexual orientation? Want to learn more about legal methods to hold the responsible parties accountable? Contact an experienced employment law attorney in your area for more information.