Walmart Denies Lesbian Employee Spousal Health Coverage; GLAD Sues on Her Behalf

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glad_revGay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) has filed a charge of discrimination against Walmart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of Jacqueline Cote. Cote, a Walmart employee, was denied spousal health insurance for her wife, Diana Smithson, who is currently battling ovarian cancer. (The EEOC complaint can be read here.) That refusal, GLAD alleges, violates both state and federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.

Cote works as an associate in the Swansea, MA Walmart store. Starting in 2006 and continuing through 2012, she attempted to add Smithson to her insurance during Walmart’s open enrollment periods, trying to access a benefit available to other Walmart employees. Cote was particularly concerned about health insurance because of her wife’s health history – Smithson had had a bout with breast cancer in 1995.

“I felt like a second class employee,” said Cote.  “I had to keep trying; I wouldn’t give up.” [pullquote]But when Cote entered her spouse’s gender as “female,” the online system would stop her from proceeding further.  When she called Walmart’s home office to investigate further, she was told that Walmart did not offer health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses.[/pullquote]

But when Cote entered her spouse’s gender as “female,” the online system would stop her from proceeding further.  When she called Walmart’s home office to investigate further, she was told that Walmart did not offer health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses.

“All that Jackie wanted was to be treated like all other Walmart employees and to take care of her spouse,” said Janson Wu, senior staff attorney at GLAD. “Instead, Walmart chose to discriminate against its gay and lesbian employees.”

By the time Walmart ultimately announced that it would change its policy in 2013 (which went into effect on January 1, 2014),  Cote and Smithson had racked up medical bills topping $100,000, been hounded by bill collectors, and lost many nights’ sleep to worry.

Walmart is the world’s largest public corporation, the biggest private employer in the world with over two million employees, the largest retailer in the world, and the largest private employer in the United States. [pullquote]“We wanted to put our relationship in writing and show our commitment to each other,” said Cote.  And that commitment has endured through rounds of chemotherapy and bill collectors’ calls. “We are each other’s rock,” said Smithson.[/pullquote]

Cote and Smithson, who have been together for nearly 23 years, were married in May 2004, as soon as it was legally possible. “We wanted to put our relationship in writing and show our commitment to each other,” said Cote.  And that commitment has endured through rounds of chemotherapy and bill collectors’ calls. “We are each other’s rock,” said Smithson.

Through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders works in New England and nationally to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status, and sexual orientation.

[From a News Release]

 

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