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California Expands Rights of Domestic Partners

November 29, 2001

On October 14, 2001, California Governor Gray Davis signed legislation requiring that employers provide certain benefits to domestic partners of employees and otherwise extending to domestic partners certain protections that are currently offered only to married couples. The bill largely overturns an initiative passed by California voters in March 2000, which defined marriage as a heterosexual union, thus denying significant benefits to domestic partners.

The new law, which takes effect January 1, 2002, will expand the benefits afforded those who qualify as domestic partners. In order to qualify, same-sex couples must be at least eighteen years of age and must meet various statutory requirements, including filing a Declaration of Domestic Partnership with the Secretary of State. Opposite-sex couples can also register as domestic partners and qualify for benefits, but only if one member of the partnership is at least 62 years old.

Employers should be aware that the new law extends the following benefits to couples who meet these requirements:

Sick Leave

Current California law requires employers who provide sick leave to allow employees to use sick leave to care for an ill child, parent, or spouse. See California Establishes 'Kin Care' Leave (March 2000). Specifically, employees must be permitted to use accrued and available sick leave in an amount not less than what would be accrued and available as sick leave during six months of employment.

Under the new law, employers must, to the same extent, allow employees to use sick time to care for an ill domestic partner, or child of a domestic partner. This means that one-half an employee's annual sick leave allotment, once it has actually accrued, may be used when an employee needs time off to care for an ill domestic partner, or child of a domestic partner.

For example, an employee who earns five days of sick leave per year could use two-and-one-half days to care for an ill domestic partner, but only after the employee had actually earned those days.

Group Health Care

The new law also creates additional obligations for providers of group health care and disability insurance plans. Insurers will be required to offer employers the opportunity to obtain coverage for domestic partners of employees to the same extent, and subject to the same terms and conditions, as provided to a dependent of a married employee. In other words, while the new law does not require employers to provide coverage for domestic partners, it does require that the health plan or disability insurer make available benefits to domestic partners in the same manner as other dependents.

Eligibility for Unemployment Benefits

Current law provides that an employee who leaves his or her job without "good cause" is ineligible for unemployment benefits. The new law expands the definition of "good cause" to include the act of relocating with one's domestic partner to a place from which it is impractical to commute and to which no job transfer by the employer is available.

Disability Benefits

Existing law permits a married individual to file a disability claim on behalf of an eligible, but mentally incompetent spouse. The new law extends this same right to domestic partners.