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More ex-workers call Publix biased // NEW SUIT

Kathy Watkins, a former Publix bakery plant manager in Lakeland, filed a discrimination lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court against the grocery chain. She claims that Publix Super Markets Inc. discriminates against women who work in the company's administrative offices, warehouses and plants.

If the charges sound familiar, they should. This lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, is only the latest to charge that Lakeland-based Publix discriminates against women. A separate lawsuit, filed in July, was certified as a class action two weeks ago and could include as many as 100,000 women who work in Publix's grocery stores.

Some say Thursday's filing is just more proof of discrimination. Others claim the company has become a target, unfairly accused by greedy lawyers.

The suit could include 15,000 to 20,000 women who have worked or are employed in Publix's offices, warehouses and plants, said Ervin Gonzalez, a Miami lawyer who filed the lawsuit. He added that more than 200 women have contacted his law firm, Robles & Gonzalez, alleging discrimination.

Gonzalez hopes for a class-certification hearing by the fall, and to go to trial a year and a half to two years from now. The class-action suit involving store employees may go to trial this summer. Gonzalez said he will not ask the court to have the two gender-discrimination cases combined.

In yet another suit filed in district court in Tampa, Janifer Ellis, a former real estate tax manager, is also charging that Publix discriminates against women. (See related story.)

Publix denies it discriminates and says the latest lawsuit is a result of a union trying to attack the non-union company. It also says that because it is the state's largest employer, the company is an obvious target for lawsuits.

Both sides in the latest case were hurling accusations Thursday.

"This lawsuit indicates that Publix's discrimination against female employees goes way beyond grocery stores," Gonzalez said in a news release. "The company should be ashamed for trying to bill itself as a fair and honest employer when gender bias seems so rampant and pervasive throughout its operations."

Publix fired back.

"This suit is nothing more than opportunistic lawyers trying to piggyback on recent headlines," Publix spokeswoman Jennifer Bush said in a release. "Over the past six months we have received more than 6,000 sworn statements from retail employees and we're confident we would receive that same outpouring of support from our office, warehouse and manufacturing employees."

Watkins, 48, is not likely to be one of those people.

She began working for Publix in 1970 as a store clerk and worked her way up to bakery plant manager. She claims she was paid less than men in similar positions and didn't get a company car, which men in similar jobs got.

Watkins complained to management. Later, she took a medical leave for an injury she said she sustained on the job. When she returned, she said, she was wrongly demoted to manufacturing representative and was no longer eligible for up to $30,000 in annual bonuses, according to Juan Bauta, an attorney with the Miami law firm.

She then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the lawsuit soon followed. She wants a preliminary injunction, back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, reimbursement for lost opportunities and punitive damages.

It is too early to tell if the EEOC will ask to join this suit, as it did with the earlier class-action case, said Eve Lowe, acting supervisor for the commission.

Publix, founded in 1930, is the seventh-largest supermarket chain in the nation. It has 99,000 employees in more than 500 stores in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. And it has won kudos from publications such as Fortune magazine for being a good company to work for.

The grocer blames the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for stirring up this latest round of trouble.

"In an aggressive four-year corporate campaign to hurt Publix and our employee owners, the UFCW has solicited disgruntled employees to file lawsuits and has held press conferences to discredit Publix," Bush said in the Publix news release. "This is simply the union's same old tired bag of tricks, trying to divert Publix's focus from our aggressive growth plans and commitment to our customers."

Gonzalez said the union referred Watkins to his firm.

"But the union didn't make up the fact that there aren't women in executive positions in significant numbers, that women get lower salaries, that women don't get the same benefits and less opportunities at Publix," Gonzalez said. "That's not fiction, that's fact."

In the earlier class-action lawsuit, filed in July, Publix argued that the union helped organize and finance that lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams dismissed that point.

Sam Smith, one of the Tampa lawyers who filed the earlier lawsuit, declined to comment as to why the case filed in July did not include the women in the corporate, warehouse and packaging facilities.

Bauta, of the Miami firm, said that the women in the stores have different work situations from the women in the corporate offices and warehouses, so they wouldn't all fit into one class.

These are not the only lawsuits pending against Publix.

_ Staff writer Bruce Vielmetti contributed to this report.