The fight for equal rights for same-sex couples has been going on for decades in the U.S., and the workplace is no exception. While companies do strive to consider the needs and rights of these individuals – with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission playing no small part – there have historically been certain legislative barriers that are only just now being overcome.

The proverbial thorn in the paw of LGBTQ rights has traditionally been the Defense of Marriage Act, the text of which has infamously mandated that legally speaking, marriage can only occur in a heterosexual context. This seeming semantic detail has caused no end of trouble for LGBTQ employees who have struggled to gain equal rights for employee benefits based solely on marriage and family classification, such as health care benefits.

The Department of Labor makes a change
In one of the more recent acts in the current cultural paradigm shift toward greater equality, the U.S. Department of Labor updated the definition of "spouse" as it appears in the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law, which allows employees to take leave for purposes of family-related medical emergencies, has up until recently excluded same-sex families from its protection. In a 2013 landmark decision, however, the department revised the definition of "spouse" to cover eligible employees in same-sex unions as well as heterosexual marriages. This revision has opened the door to additional rights for LGBTQ members of the workforce, who can now have access to the same family leave as the rest of the country.

Employers struggling to adapt
While the department's decision is a definite step in the right direction, some employers have experienced hiccups in the wake of the ruling, especially those involved with benefits and leave administration. As the Society for Human Resource Management noted, there has been a big push for companies to update their managerial training to adapt to this new definition. Benefits administrators must take into account not only new eligibility for employees, but also the fact that FMLA protection extends to same-sex couples regardless of state of residence.

Small-business owners may experience particular trouble navigating the new legislation, especially in instances where entrepreneurs lack the financial resources to have a dedicated HR services team to turn to. In these instances, PEO companies can provide the legislative guidance to help smaller companies remain in compliance with the new law, as well as ensuring they have all their administrative ducks in a row in terms of acquiring and processing documentation.