Starting on October 1, The Exxon Mobil Corporation will extend health care benefits to married same-sex couples. Exxon will also extend other employee benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees. In the past, Exxon has drawn much criticism for policies related to its gay and lesbian workers. The company has been asked by human rights groups, pension funds and even some of its own shareholders to protect their gay and lesbian employees from discrimination in the United States.
The company has defied pressure from the groups for years, saying it was following the policies of the federal government. The company released a statement saying, “Spousal eligibility in our U.S. benefit plans has been and continues to be governed by the federal definition of marriage and spouse.” The oil giant has 77,000 covered workers and retirees in the United States. The company also provides benefits to same-sex spouses in 30 countries outside the United States.
The federal government has been issuing rule changes and guidance on how gay couples should be treated since the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act last June. According to the decision, legally married gay couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as straight couples. The Internal Revenue Service released guidelines that said that same-sex couples would be considered married for federal tax law purposes, even if they live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage. The Labor Department issued its own guidance as well, saying that legally married same-sex couples were entitled to the same protections as opposite-sex spouses.
The Labor Department law that governs many employee benefits does not oblige employers to extend health coverage to spouses. There is also no explicit law that prohibits companies from offering health benefits exclusively to opposite-sex spouses.
However, while employers aren’t required to provide medical spousal benefits at all, those that do must treat all spouses in legal marriages equally if they want to stay on the right side of the law.