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Publix faces new sex-bias lawsuit

Publix Super Markets will face another multimillion-dollar sex discrimination case, this one to be filed in federal court today on behalf of 10,000 women who were not covered by a previous case that cost the grocer $85-million.

This time, Publix is being accused of systemically discriminating against women in hiring and promotion at its vast collection of warehouses and food processing plants in Lakeland, Deerfield Beach, Miami, Boynton Beach, Atlanta, Sarasota and Jacksonville.

The case would cover current and former employees dating back to January 1994. If they prevail, attorneys for the women estimate their clients will be owed a "ballpark figure" of $50-million in back pay for missed job opportunities.

The case would be the third class-action discrimination case to dog the Lakeland-based grocery giant in the last two years. Publix agreed in January to an $85-million out-of-court settlement which claimed the company had discriminated against women and blacks in hiring and promotion in 470 stores spread over four states. The company, which admitted no guilt in settling, agreed to sweeping changes in the way it hires and promotes women and blacks. But that did not stop another pending class-action discrimination suit filed four months later on behalf of current and former black employees in its stores, warehouses and food processing plants.

Publix officials could not be reached for comment on the new case.

Like the previous two suits, the third will include plaintiffs who were referred to lawyers by a food workers union that has tried to organize Publix workers. The union said it is part of its job to show how it can help workers even if they do not have union cards. U.S. District Court Judge Henry Lee Adams ruled in the first gender bias case that union involvement in bringing the lawsuits was no defense against denying women or minorities their civil rights.

"This case is similar to the one that was settled, except the segregation of women in the warehouses and plants was more extreme," said Jean Boler, the trial attorney in the case. "There were women's jobs, and there were men's jobs. They didn't even send women's applications to the supervisors (who do the on-site hiring). Hand work was for women. Forklift operators, jobs involving heavy machinery and any lifting, even if it was 10 pounds, was for men."

The women who did get hired for warehouse and factory jobs also had to put up with a work environment hostile to females assigned to those jobs, the lawsuit will allege.

Publix distribution system and food processing facilities are huge. In Lakeland, the company's bakery alone employs 400 people. Another 300 work at a deli plant that churns out 200,000 pounds of pre-made salads daily, 250,000 pounds of meat products weekly and 4-million pounds of salad dressing annually. The frozen food warehouse keeps an area equal to the size of three Wal-Marts at below zero temperature around the clock.

About 160,000 women who work or had worked in Publix stores were eligible for some of the $63.9-million left from the $85-million settlement after the lawyers took their cut. But thousands fewer have actually applied for some of it.

The pending racial discrimination case is filed on behalf of blacks _ males and females _ companywide who did not apply for any of the $2.95-million the earlier case set side for black males. A hearing is scheduled Dec. 12 to determine whether the racial case filed in April can proceed. The $2.95-million was part of a settlement agreed to by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found Publix was discriminating against blacks in some locations.