Retail giant Walmart discriminated against a lesbian employee when it refused to provide health coverage to her and her wife, who had ovarian cancer at the time.
That was the conclusion of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing employment laws, in its notice of probable cause issued late January on behalf of Jacqueline Cote. Cote, a Walmart employee at the retailer’s Swansea, Massachusetts, store, was denied spousal health insurance for her wife Diana Smithson. According to Cote’s discrimination charge, beginning in 2006 and continuing through 2012 she attempted to add Smithson to her insurance plan during Walmart’s open enrollment period. But when Cote entered her spouse’s gender as “female,” the online registration system would stop her from proceeding any further. Cote claims that when she called Walmart’s home office to see about coverage for Smithson she was told Walmart did not offer health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses.
Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004.
As a result of Walmart’s failure to provide health insurance coverage for Cote and her spouse, the couple amassed more than $100,000 in unpaid medical bills after Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012.
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Walmart changed its policy of refusing to provide health insurance benefits for same-sex spouses last year.
“All that Jackie wanted was to be treated like all other Walmart employees, and to take care of her spouse,” said Janson Wu, a senior staff attorney at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), in a statement. “Instead, Walmart chose to discriminate against its married gay and lesbian employees.”
GLAD filed the discrimination charge with the EEOC on Cote’s behalf.
The EEOC determined that Walmart’s refusal to offer Cote the same employment benefits as other Walmart employees due to the gender of her spouse violated the law and ordered the retailer find a “just resolution” for violating Cote’s civil rights.
According to the EEOC’s notice of probable cause, if Walmart is either unwilling to enter into settlement negotiations with Cote or if the parties are unable to agree on any potential settlement terms, the next step would be federal court action.