The Delaware House of Representatives voted yesterday in favor of Senate Bill 30, a bill that would create same-sex civil unions in Delaware, and recognize civil unions performed in other states. The bill also changes all sections of the Delaware Code where marriage is mentioned, by requiring that the word “marriage” be read to mean “marriage or civil union.”
Senate Bill 30 was approved by the Delaware Senate on April 7, and Governor Markell has already declared that he will sign the bill into law “as soon as a suitable time and place are arranged.” The law will take effect on January 1, 2012.
The new law raises several questions for employers. For example, the law cannot, and does not, alter federal non-recognition of civil unions. So how will the new law impact employers?
Right to Employment Benefits
As we have previously indicated, the most significant impact of Senate Bill 30 is likely to be on employment benefits. When the law takes effect, employers will be required to provide partners in a civil union with the same benefits that they provide to partners in a marriage. The Act would not cover those currently not protected by the Delaware Discrimination in Employment Act (DDEA): (a) employers with less than 4 employees; or (b) religious corporations with respect to discrimination based on sexual orientation
Equality of Benefits
Employers should also be aware that equality of benefits is a two-way street. Many employers previously offered employment benefits to unmarried same-sex partners, but not to unmarried heterosexual partners. Now that same-sex couples have access to civil unions that are substantively identical to marriage, employers may be open to claims of reverse discrimination if they continue to offer benefits to same-sex partners who have not entered into a civil union, but do not offer the same benefits to unmarried heterosexual partners.
Employers should also be careful to impose the same requirements for receipt of benefits upon same sex civil union partners as they do upon married partners. While it is perfectly acceptable to ask an employee to verify his or her marital status before extending benefits, the same requests should be made of both same-sex and heterosexual partners. If you do not require a copy of a marriage certificate to establish benefits, you should not require a copy of a civil union certificate.
As we have previously reported, the DDEA already protects Delaware employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Keep in mind that homosexual individuals who may not have previously chosen to disclose that fact may, as a result of the new law, disclose that information so that their partner may enjoy benefits. Therefore, employers may possibly have knowledge of an employee’s protected class they might not otherwise have had – and should proceed cautiously with any adverse employment actions, particularly ones that may follow closely on the heels of such disclosure.
This post was authored by Adria B. Martinelli and Lauren Moak. Adria will be speaking about the implications of Delaware's Civil Union and Equality Act of 2011 at our upcoming Annual Employment Law Seminar on May 11, 2011.