Editorial: In July 1999, Asda became a subsidiary of the American retail company Walmart, and today is the United Kingdom’s second-largest chain by market share.
A class action lawsuit against Walmart was filed in U.S. District Court in Boston on Tuesday morning. The lawsuit alleges that, prior to 2014, the nation’s largest retailer violated gender discrimination laws by denying health insurance benefits to the spouses of legally married gay employees.
The suit was filed on behalf of Jacqueline Cote, an office manager at a Swansea, Massachusetts store. Cote’s wife, Diana Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, but she was denied health care coverage, because Walmart refused to provide coverage for spouses in same-sex marriages. As a result, the couple has incurred over 150,000 dollars in medical debt, while Smithson continues to fight her cancer.
The class action lawsuit was filed by two advocacy groups – Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC). Peter Romer-Friedman, WLC’s Deputy Director of Litigation, explained the rationale for the lawsuit, arguing:
Walmart broke federal law when it denied vital benefits to workers who have same-sex spouses. In an era where marriage equality is supported by the American people and the U.S. Supreme Court, it is hard to believe that Walmart would treat its LGBTQ workers so poorly. Because Walmart’s discrimination harmed working families across the country, we are filing a national class action to ensure that Walmart finally provides these families the equal benefits federal law guarantees.
Walmart revised their policy to begin covering same-sex spouses on January 1, 2014. However, Cote and Smithson were legally married in Massachusetts in 2004. On January 29, 2014, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) issued a determination that Walmart’s refusal to provide health care coverage to Jackie’s wife constituted unlawful sex discrimination.
According to Reuters, a Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment, beyond stating that the company’s policy of denying benefits coverage to same-sex spouses before the 2014 change was legal. Whether the policy was legal will now be up to the courts to decide.
However, legal or not, the nation’s largest retailer chose to deny coverage to a woman with cancer, simply because she was in a same-sex rather than an opposite-sex marriage. That policy was discriminatory. While Walmart has already begun to change the way they treat same-sex spouses, they should also make amends and compensate those couples they discriminated against prior to 2014.