Bereavement Leave Obligations Extended to Same-Sex Partners in New York

New York State employers who extend funeral or bereavement leave to employees after the death of a relative must, effective October 29, 2010, provide the same leave after the death of a same-sex committed partner. Although this amendment to the New York Civil Rights Law creates no obligation for employers who do not offer funeral or bereavement leave to any employees, it does require a change for the many New York employers who currently provide such leave to various groups of defined relatives, but not to same-sex committed partners. Those policies and related practices should be revised promptly to comply with the new law. Additionally, while the new law does not apply to employers outside New York State, they may want to consider similar revisions for business reasons.

The new law’s definition of a committed relationship as “a long-term relationship characterized by emotional and financial commitment and independence” arguably lacks clear boundaries. How long is long-term? How much proof can or should employers require to verify that every element of the definition has been met? These questions remain to be answered.

The exact revisions to funeral or bereavement leave policies likely will differ employer to employer. For example, some employers may decide to extend funeral or bereavement leave to all committed partners, not just same-sex ones. Other employers may prefer to extend funeral or bereavement leave as narrowly as possible to comply with the new law. Regardless of how employers amend their policies, however, all affected employers should do so immediately.

The end of a calendar year is often a good time for employers to focus on potential revisions to employee handbooks and other employment-related policies and procedures, in part because organizational changes are often implemented around the beginning of a calendar year. Thus, this is a good time to modify funeral or bereavement leave policies as mandated, as well as to consider revisions to other employment policies and practices.

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