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Patricia Harman: My Calling to Midwifery (Celebrating National Midwifery Week)

Nancy Polikoff: Who is "Family" When We Talk About Family Caregiving Leave?

Today's post is from Nancy Polikoff, author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Polikoff is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches Sexuality and the Law and has taught Family Law for more than 20 years. This post originally appeared at her Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage blog.

Book Cover for Beyond (Straight and Gay) MarriageThanks to Nan Hunter for alerting me to the proposed regulations implementing my favorite family leave policy: the one that allows federal government employees to use their sick leave to care for "any individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship." I've had numerous posts on this topic on my Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage blog . I love the current policy because it allows employees to define their own family members. Whenever advocates for marriage equality cite the unfairness of preventing one partner from caring for another who is ill, I always respond by arguing that the solution to that problem isn't marriage -- it's an employee leave policy like the federal government's! Such a policy encompasses same-sex couples but also ensures that unpartnered LGBT individuals, who may be estranged from or live far from their families of origin, can receive care from the people they consider members of their families of choice.

The proposed new regulations make clear that "domestic partners" are included. Appropriately, the definition of domestic partners requires commitment and some shared responsibility for each other's "common welfare and financial obligations," but it does not require living together. It also encompasses different sex couples. No couple must marry, or register with the state as domestic partners, or enter a civil union, to qualify for the leave. The proposed regs also make explicit that the child of a domestic partner is in the category of children one may use sick leave to care for, but, again, such children were always covered because the standard has always included (and continues to) all children to whom the employee stands "in loco parentis" (in other words, functions as a parent).

Most importantly for my analysis, the broad definition of family remains. The regulations read:

"We are not re-defining the phrase ‘‘[a]ny individual related by blood or affinity’’ whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship. We have broadly interpreted the phrase in the past to include such relationships as grandparent and grandchild, brother and sister-in-law, fiance´(e), cousin, aunt and uncle, other relatives outside definitions (1)–(4) in current 5 CFR 630.201 and 630.902, and close friend, to the extent that the connection between the employee and the individual was significant enough to be regarded as having the closeness of a family relationship even though the individuals might not be related by blood or formally in law."

The late Senator Ted Kennedy was the lead sponsor of the "Healthy Families Act," proposed legislation that would require private employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees. It includes the same definition of whom a worker must be allowed to use their leave to care for as that contained in the standard for federal employees. There is also a movement to get states to pass such laws. Every paid sick leave bill has a definition of the family members the employees may use their leave to care for. I have long argued for the definition in the Healthy Families Act, and I continue to do so.

States with super-DOMAs (those prohibiting recognition of all unmarried couples as well as same-sex marriages) are probably unable to pass a paid sick leave law that includes "domestic partners." But such states can definitely use the broader definition of family. That definition does not single out couples for protection; it simply says that employees must be able to use their sick leave to care for the people closest to them whom they consider members of their family. It's been working for the federal government for 15 years. It respects diverse family relationships. It helps employees balance their work and caregiving responsibilities. And from a LGBT rights perspective it respects all our close relationships, not just those that mirror heterosexual marriage.

I have no problem with changes that specify that same- and different-sex couples are included regardless of marital status. I'm just thrilled they made it crystal clear that the broader definition of family remains. And I'd like to see LGBT rights groups advocate that broader definition in federal and state legislation.