EEOC ruling: Walmart discriminated against lesbian employee


BOSTON — A federal agency says Walmart discriminated against a lesbian employee who sought health coverage for her ailing wife and has ordered “a just resolution” for violating her civil rights.

WalmartThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ordered the retail giant to work with Jacqueline Cote of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who hopes the determination will help her pay off $100,000 in medical bills.

In a Jan. 29 EEOC ruling, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, the agency said Cote “was treated differently and denied benefits because of her sex.”

Cote tried to enroll her partner in Walmart’s health plan repeatedly starting in 2008, but coverage was denied and the company didn’t provide it until 2014. In 2012, Cote’s wife, Diana Smithson, was diagnosed with cancer.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company said it expanded its policy in 2014 to include same-sex couples.

“While we disagree with the finding of reasonable cause, we have notified the EEOC of our willingness to meet with them and Miss Cote to discuss resolving the matter,” spokesman Randy Hargrove said.

Cote, 52, and Smithson, 63, met while working at a Walmart store in Augusta, Maine, in 1999. They moved to Massachusetts where they continued to work for Walmart and where they married in May 2004, just days after the state legalized same-sex marriage.

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Smithson quit in 2007 to take care of Cote’s elderly mother. That prompted Cote to try to add Smithson to her health plan the following year.

Cote said she tried to enroll online, but the system wouldn’t let her proceed when she indicated her spouse was a woman. When she sought an official explanation, she was told that same-sex spouses were not covered.

Each year thereafter, she tried and failed to enroll Smithson – including in 2012, when Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“I was shocked,” said Cote, who was working in the company’s East Falmouth, Massachusetts, store at the time. She said her colleagues in every Walmart store she has worked in have been supportive of the couple.

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