Publix remains one of the most popular and beloved retail chains in the entire South despite the fact that the Fortune 100 corporation has been repeatedly accused of mistreating its LGBTQ workers. The chain has been fighting anti-gay accusations for years — but instead of working to rid itself of bad PR, it continues finding new ways to upset the community.
This might be because the corporation's politics lean to the right in general — its board members donate money to conservatives, the daughter of the company's founder spent a bunch of money trying to keep medical marijuana illegal in Florida, and the chain refuses to sign a pact that would help protect its farmworkers from sexual abuse on the job.
But yet another anti-gay scandal bubbled up this week after workers accused the supermarket giant of refusing to provide preventative HIV medicine to gay men. Rather than finally offer some sort of mea culpa, the chain appears to be doubling down on its stance, so here's a full history of Publix's long-standing issues with the gay community:
HIV-positive activist Josh Robbins first warned in November 2016 that Publix, Florida's beloved supermarket giant, was refusing to provide its workers with drugs that prevent HIV transmission. Nearly a year and a half later, the grocery chain has still not answered why it has adopted this health-care policy. The Lakeland-based company danced around the question again this week when HIV-focused website TheBody.com asked for an explanation.
In light of the conservative leanings of the company's founding family and its board, some critics are asking whether Publix has any business reason for denying "pre-exposure prophylaxis," or PrEP, drugs (known by the brand name Truvada) to its workers or if the company simply objects to the fact that the drugs are recommended for use by gay men, who are at higher risk for HIV transmission.
According to both Robers and TheBody.com, Publix employees who have asked the chain to cover the medications — which prevent HIV transmission — have routinely been denied. Robbins published denial letters from Publix human resources, which said employees can receive HIV medications only after they've contracted the virus.
Publix has since tweeted that it still does not provide preventative PrEP drugs and covers the medication only after someone has contracted HIV:
Hi, Jay. The coverage plan’s definition of medical necessity applies to all covered benefits. Under this definition, coverage is provided for the identification, treatment or management of a medical condition. Coverage is not generally provided to diagnose a medical... 1/3— PublixHelps (@PublixHelps) February 1, 2018
...condition for which a member has no indications or to treat a medical condition that a member might get in the future. Currently, our plan covers Truvada for members who are being treated for active HIV infections or who have been recently exposed to HIV. We... 2/3— PublixHelps (@PublixHelps) February 1, 2018
...appreciate hearing from our customers and associates and will re-evaluate coverage for Truvada as a preventive benefit. ~*Jessica 3/3— PublixHelps (@PublixHelps) February 1, 2018
Tom says he began working at Publix in the 1970s but left after four years: "I quit when I was cheated out of a management position twice because I was gay." He says his superior told him flat-out that he had been passed over for the job because of his "lifestyle."
Tom later returned to the supermarket out of financial need and has worked there ever since — never becoming a manager.
Several years ago, his partner of 33 years passed away. But when he asked for paid bereavement leave, he was told he wasn't eligible.
"They denied me bereavement pay," he says. "They said it wasn't a law in the state of Florida that we could be married, so I couldn't get bereavement leave."
"That's flat out discrimination," he says. "It wasn't the money that I needed. It was the principle of the thing."
He says the snub was particularly galling because other, straight Publix employees have been married and divorced many times but still receive bereavement pay when a loved one passes away. Yet his relationship wasn't recognized.
"They're a bunch of hypocrites," he says of his higherups.
"I think it's still 1965 in their eyes," says David Cary Hart, a retired CEO of Drake Business Schools and 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 super market chain — Florida's second largest private employer with 160,000 on the payroll — is behind the times.
When he complained about Publix's lack of policies to protect LGBT employees from discrimination, a spokeswoman replied:
As a company we are inundated with survey requests across multiple industries and actually participate in very few due to the volume. We feel that our reputation, our customers and our associates are the best testimonials of who we are as a company. We do focus on a few surveys that we feel encompass the broadest range of topics, such as the "Great Places to Work", which captures not only facts about our organization but the voices of our associates as well. By not responding to the HRC survey we annually receive a score of zero.
Nicole Krauss, a Publix spokeswoman, told New Times something similar in an email statement.
"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," Krauss said. "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 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."
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.
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Over the past two weeks, half a dozen current and former Publix employees have contacted New Times to complain that the company discriminates against gay workers. One went as far as to say he'd been treated like a "second-class" citizen by the supermarket chain.
Publix denies the allegations. But there is at least one official decision on the books backing up the complaints. In September 2012, Broward County's Human Rights Board ruled that Publix had wrongly fired a cake decorator because he's gay, awarding him $100,000.
What did Publix argue? That the cake decorator was axed for illegally giving a co-worker part of a red-velvet cake bar.
Ask 100 Floridians to rattle off Publix's slogan and, guaranteed, 100 of them will be able to answer: "Where shopping is a pleasure." The state's most beloved supermarket has a stellar reputation for killer chicken tender Pub subs, free deli meat slices, and employee-friendly policies.
But beyond the buffed-to-a-shine aisles and soothing green color scheme, at least one employee claims the chain isn't always a pleasant place to work. A new lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade civil court says Publix supervisors violated medical privacy laws by exposing the HIV diagnosis of one of its managers, who says he became the subject of workplace gossip after a pharmacy employee blabbed.
"The assistant pharmacy manager purposefully and deliberately disclosed to [the manager's] coworkers his HIV status, in order to embarrass and ostracize him," the suit alleges.