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Marriage Equality is a Workers' Rights Issue

Nicole G. Berner,
Associate General Counsel,
Service Employees International Union
Elena Medina,
Law Fellow,
Service Employees International Union
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March 21, 2013

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in two historic cases relating to marriage equality. In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Justices will consider the constitutionality of Proposition 8, a 2008 referendum that stripped same-sex couples in California of their fundamental right to marry by limiting state-recognized marriages to unions between a man and a woman. The following day, in United States v. Windsor, the Court will hear a challenge to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that requires the federal government to recognize as valid only those marriages between a man and a woman.

Prior to DOMA’s passage in 1996, the federal government recognized all marriages that were valid under the laws of the state in which a couple was married. The enactment of DOMA meant that federal laws relating to marriage applied only to marriages of heterosexual couples. Thus, the federal government does not recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple even if they are legally married under the laws of their own home state.

DOMA hurts lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender working Americans because marital status plays a key role in determining eligibility for—and taxation of—numerous workplace benefits and protections including healthcare coverage, retirement plans, workers’ compensation and more. These benefits and protections form the safety net upon which most working Americans and their families rely for retirement and financial assistance in the event of illness, injury, disability or death. They are particularly crucial for families in which only one adult works outside of the home and the other remains home to care for the couple’s children a disabled or elderly family member. Because of DOMA, married LGBT workers, who put in the same hours and do the same jobs, are deprived of many of the benefits and protections available to their married heterosexual co-workers.

A broad coalition of labor unions, representing over 20 million working Americans and the interests of all working people, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the challenge to DOMA because we believe that all working people are entitled to fair and equal treatment in the workplace. Our brief tells the stories of real workers and their families and how they were hurt by DOMA. Because of DOMA, many workers are forced to go without healthcare coverage for their spouses, or must pay significantly more for such coverage than their co-workers pay. DOMA complicates, penalizes or flatly prohibits married LGBT workers from receiving employer-provided healthcare coverage. Without this coverage, some same-sex spouses must rely on public assistance or risk the financial well-being of their families by being without healthcare insurance. Even for workers whose employers extend coverage to same-sex spouses or who can afford to purchase private insurance, DOMA forces many LBGT workers to pay taxes on these benefits while their co-workers receive spousal healthcare coverage tax-free. DOMA also denies married LGBT couples protections provided to other married couples when one spouse suffers a workplace injury or illness, and it severely restricts same-sex couples’ access in retirement to Social Security, Medicare, and pension plans.

The labor movement is united in our belief that workers should not be stigmatized or discriminated against because of who they love. Therefore, we stand with employers, faith organizations, members of all branches of the U.S. military and others in urging the Supreme Court to affirm that DOMA violates the promise – enshrined in the United States Constitution – that all Americans should be treated equally under the law.

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