LAKELAND, Fla. -- Eight current and former female employees of Publix Super Markets here filed a class action suit last week, charging the company with discriminating against the approximately 45,000 women it employs.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla., charges that Publix bypassed female employees for promotions in favor of less qualified male employees, repeatedly denied them full-time status, gave them lower pay than male workers performing the same jobs, channeled them into lower-paying positions with little chance of advancement into management, denied them training and other career-enhancing opportunities given to male coworkers, that male supervisors and coworkers subjected them to sexual harassment, and that superiors ignored or ridiculed their complaints.
According to attorneys for the plaintiffs -- Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, Oakland, Calif.; Thomas A. Warren, Tallahassee, Fla.; and Charles G. Burr, P.A., Tampa -- it may be the largest sex discrimination class action suit ever filed.
The filing is the latest in a series of class action discrimination suits leveled against major operators in recent years. Lucky Stores, Dublin, Calif.; Albertson's, Boise, Idaho; Safeway, Oakland, Calif., and Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., all agreed to multimillion dollar settlements in class action cases. The Saperstein firm was involved in each instance.
In a statement, Jennifer Bush, a Publix spokeswoman, said her company is "committed to fair promotion practices and any lawsuit that suggests otherwise is out of touch with reality.
"Women and minorities make up more than 30% of [Publix] management. The number of women in management continues to grow as Publix rapidly expands," she added.
Burr, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said he believes the operator's claim of 30% of women in management positions is misleading because the company has recently "reclassified" certain positions as management -- such as assistant deli manager -- even though such positions en-tail no change in pay or job responsibilities.
He also said his side has gathered statements from "literally hundreds" of past and present female Publix employees that are "uncanny in their consistency." He said the eight were chosen as plaintiffs in the suit because their cases were the "most representative and compelling."
The latest case is not the first time that charges of sexual discrimination have been leveled at Publix. Last year, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union launched a campaign against the company, urging female employees to seek redress for perceived discrimination. Publix, a non-union employer, called the campaign "a blatant attempt . . . to exploit the news media for [UFCW's] own self-serving agenda."
And a recent suit brought by a former female associate was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, Fla., as "frivolous," the company said -- but at least two other Florida discrimination suits against Publix are pending, according to legal observers.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has investigated sexual discrimination claims against Publix since 1992 and has "never . . . found reasonable cause to believe gender discrimination . . . occurred," said Charles Shanor, former EEOC general counsel, who has provided legal counsel to Publix for more than two years.
Shanor charged the plaintiffs' lawyers with "attempting to escalate eight diverse and individualized complaints about various local store employees into a class action covering nearly 500 supermarket locations."
Although no figure for damages has been specified in the suit, Burr said this case is "considerably larger" than any of the others recently settled and "it would be safe to assume the plaintiffs are looking for damages in excess of $100 million."
Burr said that in 90 days a judge will rule on whether the suit should be certified as a class action.