(SS) A former Publix cashier who identifies as a woman says co-workers tormented her with anti-gay and anti-transgender slurs until she suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized.
It’s the latest in a series of accusations against the grocery giant by LGBT employees.
Publix was aware of Kevin Whitter’s gender identity when it hired her to work as a cashier in June 2018 at a downtown Miami store, according to a lawsuit filed Sunday in U.S. District Court in Miami. Whitter’s driver's license identifies her as a female.
Her suit describes a series of humiliating encounters that began with store managers denying her request to dress as a woman. Before she was fired, co-workers yelled slurs at her and a deli worker grabbed her buttocks without permission, she said.
Publix declined to respond to the case, saying through a spokeswoman that “it would be inappropriate for us to comment on pending litigation.”
Shortly after Whitter was hired, supervisors quickly began subjecting her to harassment motivated by her sexual orientation and gender, then terminated her after she filed a discrimination complaint, according to the suit.
Allegations of harassment cited in the lawsuit include:
- Shortly after she was hired, supervisors asked her to cut her hair to fit Publix's male uniform policy. Whitter obliged because she needed the job.
- The store’s customer service manager Shereese Griffin told her she could not use the women’s restroom because she “would scare the women because you look like a man and you are a man, and you aren’t female by Publix's standards.”
- When Whitter asked to wear the woman’s uniform, Griffin told said she “was not a female and [Publix] is not interested in confusing [its] customers.”
- In her second month at Publix, co-workers began referring to her as “He-She” or “Shim.” When Whitter complained, Griffin "found the situation funny and did not correct [the co-workers'] behavior. Later, Griffin and some of Whitter’s co-workers called Whitter “Ms. Thing,” “Kevinisha,” and “Kiki.”
- In March 2019, a deli worker grabbed Whitter’s buttocks as she walked out of the company’s break room. The deli worker said that she wanted to feel if it was real, then accused Whitter of wearing “booty pads.”
- Griffin instructed Whitter to purchase a compression bra, saying her “appearance is embarrassing our department and this company and bringing negative attention,” and asking “Why can’t you be like the other gay people here. Be gay and keep it to yourself.”
- Whitter was prohibited from wearing any makeup on the job.
- In April 2019, Whitter asked for coffee and was told by the store’s pharmacy manager, “I know what you need to slap you in the face to wake you up” while gyrating his hips and moving from side to side.
- At one point in May 2019, a Publix manager told Whitter, “We don’t tolerate homosexuals in my country,” and Whitter reacted, yelling at one of the employees.
- As a Publix security guard escorted Whitter from the building, he pushed Whitter out the door, saying, “Get the [expletive] out of Publix you sissy he-she" while slamming Whitter’s finger in the door.
After the finger-slamming episode, Whitter suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a Jackson Health System mental health treatment center, the suit states. When she was released three days later, Whitter received a message to call Publix and was told she was fired.
The lawsuit states that Whitter suffers severe emotional distress over the discriminatory treatment, has suicidal thoughts and has been diagnosed with severe depression.
The suit follows a landmark 6-3 decision in June by the United States Supreme Court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex, also protects gay and transgender workers. Before the June 2020 decision, it was legal in more than half of the states, including Florida, to fire workers for being gay, bisexual or transgender.
Whitter filed the suit after filing a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations in June 2019, and within 90 days of receiving a “Notice of Right to Sue” from the EEOC.
The lawsuit alleges that Publix violated protections against disability discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation guaranteed by Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and Florida’s Civil Rights Act.