Publix, Where Being Gay Is No Pleasure

Publix might be great for deli sandwiches, but it's bad for gay employees, according to the Human Rights Campaign and several local LGBT activists. Publix does not provide benefits to domestic partners, they point out. Nor does it have nondiscrimination policies in place to protect LGBT employees.

"I think it's still 1965 in their eyes," says David Cary Hart, a retired CEO of Drake Business School and an LGBT activist. "They have absolutely no sensitivity to this issue whatsoever."

Hart points to Publix's zero rating on the HRC's Corporate Equality Index to back up his claim that the supermarket chain — Florida's second largest private employer, with 160,000 on the payroll — is behind the times. When he complained, Publix emailed him: "We are inundated with survey requests... and actually participate in very few due to the volume."

"Publix does not participate in surveys, and we have no knowledge that our score of zero in the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index survey would be for any other reason than for lack of participation," spokeswoman Nicole Krauss tells New Times. "In the five states in which we currently operate, same-sex marriage is not recognized as a legal union. Publix is recognized as a great place to work and [an] employer of choice based on the many benefits we offer our associate owners. We follow all laws in the cities and states in which we operate."

But Hart says that's BS. He points out that almost every other company on the Fortune 1000 participates in the survey. Walmart, for instance, jumped from a score of 40 in 2011 to a current score of 80 (out of 100) by extending benefits to domestic partners and adopting policies to protect gay, lesbian, and transgender employees. "The excuse that Publix gets all these surveys and can't do them all, that's just nonsense," Hart says.

Other LGBT activists agree. Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, says her organization has received many complaints from LGBT employees at Publix. "What they have described is a company that is insular and slow to move" on LGBT issues, Smith says.

She describes the supermarket chain as "shockingly conservative" in some ways but adds that "some people in upper management are at long last starting to move in the right direction."

There is no federal or state law that specifically protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from workplace discrimination. (The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has languished in Congress for 20 years, mainly because of Republican opposition.)

But Smith says Publix will soon be forced by public support and the supermarket's competitors. "I think Publix is going to have to stop lagging behind, or they are going to see people defecting to Trader Joe's, for example, which is making a big play in the state and has a stronger reputation," she argues.

Publix has faced similar accusations in the past. In 2000, the company paid $10.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against its employees. Just three years earlier, Publix paid out $81.5 million to 150,000 women who accused the chain of giving them dead-end, low-paying jobs.

Smith hopes LGBT workers won't have to sue to get their due. "From people at every level within Publix, we are starting to hear that they realize they are falling behind," she says. "What they describe is an organization that has a very paternalistic view, which can be very empathetic but also has a blind spot to the diverse families and needs of their LGBT employees."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.