Publix: A sign of things to come? (Probably not)

Publix Super Markets (which I have written about in the past) got a lot of applause from the LGBT community here in the South last month when it announced that it would begin offering spousal benefits to married same-sex couples.

Me in Publix, once again

Me in Publix, once again

It’s good news, to be sure, and my husband and I have even started shopping at Publix again (footnote 1). However, I wish this were a progressive move on on Publix’s part, not a defensive one. My contention is that Publix didn’t change its policy to be more fair to its LGBT employees, but because it didn’t want to find itself in court.

Imagine this: two Publix associates (one straight, one gay) get married. If Publix decides to offer spousal benefits to one employee and not to the other, isn’t that discrimination? Remember, these are spousal benefits, which nearly every major company offers, not domestic partner benefits, which are increasingly commonplace yet optional.

I asked my lawyer friends on Facebook whether Publix would be setting itself up for legal action by offering spousal benefits to some employees and not others, and there was not a lot of consensus. Some lawyers said that employers cannot discriminate against some marriages, while other says that companies can determine who does and doesn’t receive benefits. Since there’s some confusion, it’s likely that this issue will find its way to the courts — and Publix, a company very concerned with its public image, doesn’t want to be the target of a discrimination lawsuit.

Publix isn't touting the news on its corporate website

Publix isn’t touting the news on its corporate website

Whatever Publix’s reason for offering spousal benefits to all associates, I don’t think this move predicts a shift toward a more tolerant company. For one thing, Publix is clearly ashamed of its new policy, as it didn’t even announce it. Look at the company’s website and you’ll see that this news wasn’t even worthy of a press release.

For another, Publix hasn’t made any other overtures toward its LGBT employees and customers. It remains to be seen if the company will participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (footnote 2). I still don’t think Publix has a LGBT employee resource group, nor do I think the company is in any rush to begin one. And I certainly don’t think that Publix is going to reach out to LGBT customers by sponsoring LGBT-friendly events, such as Pride or the Tampa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Publix has taken an important first step, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of the company treating all its employees equally. What disappoints me is that Publix hasn’t indicated that it’s going to take any more steps in this direction. Prove me wrong, Publix!

Footnotes
1. Reluctantly
2. Publix regularly scores a zero because it doesn’t participate.