LGBT Publix Employee Says He Was Fired for Reporting Anti-Gay Harassment

This week, Publix responded to pressure from LGBTQ groups and agreed to provide "pre-exposure prophylactic" (PrEP) preventative HIV medications for employees. But the Fortune 100 supermarket chain still has a long way to go to combat its reputation as a hostile place for gay workers.

Take former employee Juan Pastran, who worked at a Miami-area Publix from 1995 to 2014. From 2001 onward, he handled seafood at the massively popular, Florida-based grocery giant. But as a self-described "effeminate," heavy-set gay man, he says he was subjected to a years-long harassment campaign that escalated from bad to worse. He says other workers called him a slew of offensive names, including "fag," "old woman," "queer," "puta," "pajaro," and "maricón," and that things grew even more repugnant beginning in 2013.

But, when he reported his complaints to upper management, Pastran says he was abruptly fired. Now he's suing, marking the latest case in which Publix has been accused of mistreating or turning a blind eye toward the complaints of LGBTQ employees.

"The extremely degrading and abusive discrimination and harassment got so severe and constant that the Plaintiff would regularly cry (including during work) and have anxiety and fear during work, and was even not able to sleep, and eventually ended up having to see a physician/psychologist for treatment — and ultimately was even prescribed Xanax for the anxiety, depression, etc. caused by Defendant's conduct," the suit reads.

Reached via phone, Pastran's lawyer declined to comment. Spokespeople for Publix did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But as New Times noted on Sunday, Publix has been fighting anti-gay accusations for years. The people who run the grocery chain have deep ties to conservative politics — Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Carlos Curbelo have been beneficiaries of Publix campaign cash in the past, and Rubio, in particular, has objected to LGBTQ rights and gay marriage. The chain and the trade groups it supports have also been aligned against efforts to raise local minimum wages, end polystyrene usage to curtail pollution, and even programs to cut down on farm-worker sexual abuse.

And the chain has routinely faced complaints from LGBTQ activists. In 2013, members of the rights group Equality Florida told New Times they'd received complaints about Publix's conduct, and multiple employees recounted their issues with the company firsthand. After one employee said he could not get bereavement pay after his partner of 33 years died, Publix seemingly responded to public acrimony and "updated" its pay policy. The chain has also been accused of specifically mistreating gay or HIV-positive employees.

The same appears to have happened this month, after gay-rights advocate Josh Robbins and HIV-information website both complained that Publix was refusing to provide PrEP HIV drugs to employees for personal reasons. PrEP drugs (marketed under the brand name Truvada) protect HIV-negative people from contracting the virus and the drugs are marketed heavily toward LGBTQ people, since gay men contract HIV at higher rates than the general population. Robbins in 2016 posted images of a letter Publix's insurance company sent a gay employee after denying his application for Truvada coverage. In January, followed up and reported that Publix was regularly denying Truvada applications sent from a PrEP clinic in Atlanta.

Given the company's history, most people assumed the decision was political, rather than financial, since preventative PrEP coverage is way cheaper than medical insurance for people who actually live with HIV. Most observers assumed Publix simply did not want to subsidize safe-sex drugs for gay people.

It appears those activists were correct: State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who is himself openly gay, met with Publix officials this week amid the backlash. It seems the grocery chain offered no good answer as to why it was denying PrEP coverage: Smith confirmed there was a blanket ban in place and that Publix was aware Florida is one of the top states in the country for new HIV transmissions.

One day after Smith shamed them online, Publix reversed course and began offering PrEP drugs to its 188,000 employees.

But a preponderance of evidence suggests larger institutional change may be needed at the grocery giant, which reported $34 billion in sales in 2016. Take Pastran's allegations: In addition to being subjected to constant anti-gay slurs, he says someone hung an image of a large woman in the employee lounge where he worked and wrote his name under it. He says workers asked him "what color panties he wore," what size his "bra" was, if he was going to take a day off on Mother's Day, how often he got his menstrual period, and how often he "changed his tampon." He also says he was told to act more like a man instead of "a bitch."

The issue appears to be more systemic than just a handful of bad employees: The suit says Pastran reported the claim to human-resources in 2014, but no one did anything to help. He then said he was forced to go to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and that when he showed his supervisors the EEOC complaint, they became "discernibly angry and hostile." (The EEOC complaint, which was attached to the suit, accused Publix of maintaining a "sexually hostile work environment.") He says an HR rep threatened him and warned him not to push the complaint further, and then fired Pastran in April 2014 based on what Pastran said was a "sham claim" about a fake doctor's appointment. He'd worked at the company for 19 years.

Pastran then filed a second EEOC complaint, in which he wrote that no one ever bothered to discipline any of his co-workers for bullying him. (The federal agency hasn't filed suit based on either complaint.)

Publix "was aware that I was being bullied and those that were bullying me were identified" to the company, Pastran told the EEOC. "However, to the best of my knowledge and belief, none of the individuals I complained of were disciplined or discharged. The only person affected was myself."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.