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Publix Markets Settles Bias Suit for $81.5 Million

Courts: Payment to women in class action is one of largest ever. Florida food chain says it's simply avoiding prolonged litigation.

January 25, 1997|From Times Wire Services

Publix Super Markets agreed Friday to pay $81.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit from 150,000 women who accused the grocery chain of relegating them to dead-end, low-paying jobs.

Closely held Publix, the nation's ninth-largest grocer and Florida's biggest private employer, was sued in 1995 for sex discrimination in job assignments, promotions and allocation of hours. The settlement is one of the largest ever in a sex-discrimination suit.

Publix also agreed to allow the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor hiring and promotions for up to seven years.

"This settlement really goes to breaking the glass ceiling in the promotion of women," said Frederico Costales, the EEOC's Florida director.

The settlement applies to all women who worked at any of the 535 Publix stores in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama since 1991.

Publix has said it does not have a policy against promoting women and that the allegations arose from an effort by the Food and Commercial Workers union to organize at the nonunion company.

Publix is the largest employee-owned company in the U.S. In effect, workers will be making payments to some of their colleagues and former colleagues.

Publix Chairman Howard Jenkins said the settlement was reached "to avoid extensive and prolonged litigation that could have persisted for years, and to allow [us] to concentrate our efforts on our business."

The lawsuit was brought by eight women who accused Publix of passing them over for raises and repeatedly denying them management jobs.

They and four others said they watched as men with less experience and seniority got promotions. Some said their requests were met with unwanted sexual advances from managers.

The EEOC later joined the lawsuit, and it was expanded to a class action covering former and current employees. The women were suing for unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, back pay, future earnings and benefits.

About $63.5 million has been earmarked for discrimination victims, which works out to less than $1,000 each. However, some individuals will get more, plaintiffs' attorney Jack Lee said.

Lee, who said he did not know of a larger pretrial payout, said only about 20% to 30% of those eligible in such cases typically file claims.

Of the total allocated for the settlement, $18 million will go to attorneys for the women, Publix's Jenkins said.

Although it cannot be determined how much each woman will receive until claims are filed, Publix said the 12 original plaintiffs will receive about $90,000 each. Four of those women are still Publix employees.

"All of them should be very proud of themselves for bringing this case," said Sam Smith, a lawyer for the women.

Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix has 99,000 employees at its stores, mostly in Florida, and sales last year of $9.4 billion.

The Publix settlement is the latest involving large supermarket chains in the last few years. Two years ago, Lucky Stores of Northern California paid $107 million to 14,000 women to settle similar allegations. Albertson's settled a case last year in California by paying $29.4 million to female and Latino workers. And Safeway Stores settled for $7.5 million in a 1994 sex bias suit in Northern California.

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