How Does the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage Affect Your Small Business? By Charles Bowen

On Friday, June 26, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that resulted in the immediate legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. While this was a cause for celebration for many couples, it should be noted the ruling also has important implications for small business owners.

Ensuring that your business is compliant with the current state of the law is crucial to avoid potential fines or lawsuits.

The most obvious change relates to the updating of your company’s benefit policies, particularly healthcare. If you offer a family medical plan to heterosexual couples, this must also be offered to same-sex married couples.

The same holds true for retirement plans and other similar programs that confer benefits upon married couples. Further, if the language contained in your company’s documents relating to these benefits is not gender neutral, it should be adjusted so it’s also applicable to same-sex couples.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is another example.

The FMLA stipulates that employees are allowed to take up to a 12-week leave of absence to care for a sick family member if they have accrued 1,250 hours of work over the previous 12 months. While this extended leave is unpaid, the law ensures that their job remains available upon their return.

Some companies in Georgia previously took the position that a same-sex partner was not a spouse, thus the company did not have to offer FMLA to those employees. Now the law is clear that FMLA time must be offered to all married employees.

In a nutshell, offering the same benefits and perks to all married employees, regardless of sexual orientation, is the surest way to keep your business legally compliant.

It is imperative that your supervisors understand that discrimination of any kind cannot be tolerated because the failure to prevent discrimination will leave you open to significant legal liability. Every company policy that you have in place, from the interviewing process all the way to termination, needs to be reviewed to ensure full equality.

Finally, open communication with your employees will be especially important as the business world adjusts to these changes, and it’s vital that you make the information regarding these changes freely and readily available to all employees.

While this sudden change to the law may pose some initial challenges, the ultimate result is likely to be beneficial. Demonstrating equality to all employees will generate good will for your business and help ensure that you remain competitive in your industry by being able to attract the most qualified and talented employees.

Further, every business owner should consider whether the legalization of same-sex marriage may offer the potential for economic growth.

Many wedding-related industries such as planners, photographers, special event companies and others already have seen their customer base grow just in the short time since the ruling. One can only imagine that divorce attorneys are likely waiting patiently for the inevitable increase in their business, as well.

It is not just these industries, however, that stand to benefit from the Supreme Court’s decision. All companies that welcome LGBT couples and treat them with equality and respect are likely to experience economic growth.

A study conducted by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that over the next three years, the legalization of same-sex marriage will boost the economy by $166 million. This goes far beyond the provision of wedding and honeymoon services. There are also tax implications for local, state and federal governments, and many major purchases may be more attractive now that they can be made in a joint fashion.

With a greater number of people able to marry, small businesses must make certain they remain in compliance with all of the legal changes. However, these businesses can also capitalize on the opportunities to help more customers fulfill their dreams and enjoy their life with the people they love.

Charles Bowen is a business attorney who focuses on commercial, banking and manufacturing law and also offers comprehensive mediation services. He may be contacted at 912.544.2050 or cbowen@thebowenlawgroup.com.

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