Carol L. Atkins knows what it's like to be on the slow track. In 1981, the 32-year-old Gainesville (Fla.) resident landed a job as a cashier at Publix Supermarkets Inc., a fast-growing chain based in Lakeland, Fla. Eight years later, she was promoted to grocery stocker, normally the first step toward a higher-paying job in management. Despite a spotless employment record, however, Atkins remained stuck in the same job while men were promoted ahead of her. The breaking point came last year, when Publix opened two new stores in Gainesville and a man with less than three years on the job leapfrogged into a new managerial slot. "I believe I would have been promoted if I was a man," says Atkins.
Fed up, Atkins and 11 other women slapped Publix with a sex discrimination suit last July that was joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And on Mar. 12, a federal court designated the case a class action on behalf of more than 100,000 current and former female employees of Publix, making it the largest sex discrimination case in U.S. history. The central charge: that Publix hires women into dead-end, low-wage jobs and blocks them from the stock and clerk positions that would put them on a management track. Publix denies that it discriminates, arguing that most female employees choose not to take career-track jobs in part because of the long hours.
The significance of the case extends well beyond Publix. Such suits are key to efforts by the United Food & Commercial Workers to maintain pay levels throughout the supermarket industry and to organize nonunion chains such as Publix. Already, the union has won big victories against unionized supermarket chains such as Lucky Stores Inc. and Albertson's Inc. Lucky paid out $107 million in 1992 after a court ruled that it had discriminated against 14,000 women. In 1994, Albertson's settled sexual and racial discrimination charges by agreeing to pay $29 million to 26,000 women and Hispanics. Now, with Publix, the UFCW is breaking into nonunionized territory. "This is a major issue that will roll through the entire industry," says Greg Denier, a UFCW official in charge of the Publix organizing campaign.
There's no question that Publix has some explaining to do. Women hold close to 40% of all supermarket management positions nationwide but only 21% of Publix ones, according to EEOC and Census Bureau statistics cited by the Publix plaintiffs. The chain typically hires men into the clerk and stock jobs that often lead to management, while only 12% of women get such prime spots. The few women who do make it into management wind up in the deli, which is 90% female and doesn't lead up the ladder. The result: Full-time male employees in Publix' retail stores earned an average of 35% more than full-time females in 1994, according to company records submitted in court.
COUNTEROFFENSIVE. Publix doesn't dispute the statistics, but it does disagree with the plaintiffs' interpretation of them. R. Lawrence Ashe, Jr., a partner at Atlanta's Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and Publix' lead lawyer in the case, says that men are 15 times more likely to have prior experience in stock or clerk jobs before joining Publix. And, he says, women choose dead-end jobs because the hours are better and they don't require relocation. "Publix doesn't tell anyone they can miss a night shift to stay home with their kids," says Ashe.
Publix also is staging a counteroffensive to the UFCW's organizing efforts. Company lawyers have fanned out across the company and obtained affidavits from more than 6,000 female employees stating that they do not feel discriminated against at Publix.
Atkins and her colleagues aren't convinced. They note that Ashe says the affidavits from employees were obtained when lawyers entered stores to interview employees. And they say Publix could make career-track positions more desirable to women.
The suit means that Publix faces potential liabilities that could total hundreds of millions of dollars. And it gives the UFCW an emotional issue that could help it attract thousands of new members. If the union scores big, a whole lot more than the Publix deli counter may get a good shaking up.