Publix Discriminates Against LGBT Employees, Gay Rights Activists Argue

Publix Super Markets: great for deli sandwiches. Bad for gay employees.

That's 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 non-discrimination 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 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."

But Hart claims that's B.S. He points out that almost every single 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.

"We have solicited a survey response from the company for years and have not received one," says Deena Fidas from HRC. "In addition, we have not been able to verify through independent research that the company meets any of the scoring criteria."

Other LGBT activists also have an issue with Publix. Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, says her organization has received many complaints from LGBT employees at the grocery chain.

"What they have described is a company that is insular and slow to move" on LGBT issues, Smith says.

She describes the super market 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."

Smith says Publix has no choice.

There is no federal law that specifically protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from workplace discrimination (The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, has languished in Congress for 20 years due to mainly Republican opposition). Nor does Florida.

But Smith says Publix hand will soon be forced by public support and the super market's competitors.

"I think that Publix is going to have to stop lagging behind or they are going to see people defecting to Trader Joes, for example, which is making a big play in the state and has a stronger reputation," she argues. "Grocery stores are one of the few businesses that you frequent. People care about where they spend their money and whether they are going to respect them as customers and their employees."

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 grocery of giving them dead-end, low-paying jobs.

Smith hopes that LGBT won't have to sue to get their due.

"From what we hearing 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 blindspot to the diverse families and needs of their LGBT employees."

Are you an LGBT employee at Publix? Share your work experiences with us by emailing the author.

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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.