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SOUTHBOROUGH, Mass. – On May 17 Massachusetts became the first state to legally recognize same-sex marriages and according to the Human Rights Campaign, in just one day over 1,000 couples were married. With the Supreme Court decision came a flurry of questions ranging from how to avoid employee confusion to how new definitions square under existing ERISA rules. Despite the hype regarding the impact it will have on human resource departments throughout the state, a recent Mellon Financial cyber conference titled Implications for Benefits and Human Resources Same -Sex Marriage in Massachusetts finds that an employee’s same-sex marriage will have little impact on most private employers. Experts say handling the issue is a matter of human resource departments being proactive rather than reactive, which generally means reviewing insurance contracts and plan provisions that refer to an employee’s “spouse” so that it accurately reflects the employer’s intentions. Massachusetts Credit Union League Senior Vice President of Public Relations/Marketing Rob Kimmett says it is business as usual for credit union human resource departments here. “We held staff meetings and decided because they are considered legal marriages there is no difference in how it will run,” said Kimmett. “As long as there are no strange legal challenges to the Supreme Court ruling as far as employee benefits they will be treated as any other married couple.” Representatives from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders caution employers not to eliminate existing domestic partner benefits because marriage is now an option “since not all people will want to marry, be able to marry, or be in a state that respects their marriage.” According to Hewitt Associates, employers are no more at risk when adding domestic partners than when adding spouses to health benefits. Experience has shown that the costs of domestic partner coverage to be lower than anticipated since employees eligible for the coverage tend to be young and as a result healthy and enrollment is low primarily due to the fact that most domestic partners already have coverage through their own employers. The Employee Benefit Research Institute adds that as far as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), an employer that provides health insurance to domestic partners may want to include them in the certification procedure for documenting the partnership and apply the other HIPAA requirements for consistency in administration. Experts say the real challenge will be for those HR departments with employees in other states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages as legal. During a recent Society of Human Resource Management Web chat Liz Winfeld, an expert on partner benefit issues and president of Conifer, Colorado-based education/consulting firm Common Ground, said there are no easy answers to such HR issues and advises employers to tread lightly. While Massachusetts couples are now entitled to hundreds of rights under state law, such as health insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance rights they are still denied federal rights. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which established federal definitions of “marriage” as a legal union only between one man and one woman as husband and wife; and “spouse” as a person only of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife, prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Winfield says that can lead to complicated legal situations. “So for example, although domestic partner status is not protected under federal law, if an organization’s own nondiscrimination policy says that it does not discriminate on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation or gender in terms of benefits and compensation, then not offering spousal benefits to same-sex married couples could be interpreted by some employees as discriminatory,” said Winfield. So far Massachusetts, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia are the only places where same-sex marriages are legal. [email protected]

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