Walmart sued for denying health coverage for lesbian employee’s spouse

Jacqueline Cote (right) and her spouse Diana Smithson.

Jacqueline Cote (right) and her spouse Diana Smithson.

Legal advocacy group GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders) has filed a discrimination charge against Walmart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a lesbian worker who for six years was denied health coverage for her same-sex spouse.

Jacqueline Cote (right) and her spouse Diana Smithson.

Jacqueline Cote (right) and her spouse Diana Smithson.

Jacqueline Cote, who works as an associate in the Swansea, Mass., Walmart store, was denied spousal health insurance for her wife, Diana Smithson, who is currently battling ovarian cancer.

That refusal, GLAD alleges, violates both state and federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.

Starting in 2006 and continuing through 2012, Cote 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. I had to keep trying; I wouldn’t give up,” said Cote.

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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. Instead, Walmart chose to discriminate against its gay and lesbian employees,” said Janson Wu, senior staff attorney at GLAD.

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.

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