The Labor Department intends to issue regulations this week ordering businesses to give gay employees equal treatment under a law permitting workers unpaid time off to care for newborns or loved ones.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis planned to announce Wednesday that the government would require employers to extend the option that has been available to heterosexual workers for almost two decades, two officials briefed on the plan said Monday. Neither was authorized to speak publicly ahead of the announcement.
The move, coming less than five months before November's congressional elections, seemed likely to incite conservatives and Republicans who stood in lockstep against the Obama administration's earlier efforts to repeal a ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. It also appeared likely to be popular with loyal Democrats and organized labor.
The Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to take care of loved ones or themselves. The 1993 law, which also allows employees to take time off for adoptions, has previously only been applied to heterosexual couples.
The Labor Department planned to extend those rights based on a new interpretation of the law, the officials said. There was no plan to ask Congress to change the law, which means future presidents could reverse the decision.
President Barack Obama and his administration have slowly rolled out policies to help gays and lesbians, who supported his candidacy but have soured on what they consider his slow pace in making incremental instead of wholesale changes. He planned to meet with gay activists Tuesday at the White House, the second time such a reception has been held at the executive mansion.
Gay activists have been frustrated with Obama's approach to gay policies. The White House reluctantly backed a compromise on the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy on gays in the military that would move ahead on repeal but still allow the Pentagon time to implement new policies.
Earlier this month, Obama issued orders for government agencies to extend child care services and expanded family leave to their workers. Obama's order for federal employees, though, covers only benefits that can be extended under existing law, without congressional action. Legislative action would be required for a full range of health care and other benefits.
Last year, Obama gave federal workers' same-sex partners a first round of benefits including visitation and dependent-care rights. He also authorized child-care services and subsidies; more flexibility to use family leave to attend to the needs of domestic partners and their children; relocation benefits; giving domestic partners the same status as family members when federal appointments are made; and access to credit union and other memberships when those are provided to federal workers.