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Women launch suit against Publix

During her 11 years at Publix Super Markets, Genevieve Oney worked hard to rise from a part-time produce packer to an acting security supervisor at a Publix warehouse in Miami.

She was turned down 10 times for a higher paying truck driver job. And four men with less seniority got the security supervisor job she had held temporarily. When she complained that she was paid less than men in the same jobs, her boss said: "You're making good money for a woman."

She finally got her promotion after filing a discrimination complaint with the federal government.

Then, when Publix settled an $85-million sex discrimination case and agreed to change its ways last January, she hoped things would change for women at Florida's dominant supermarket.

"They're still up to the same old games," said the 41-year-old woman who subsequently moved to Dallas after Publix demoted, then fired her three months later. "They asked me to drop my discrimination charge, and I refused. After that, they criticized everything I did. They wrote me up for things they never wrote men up for. To Publix, you're just a number."

Now, Oney is one of six women claiming Publix has engaged in a pattern of discriminating against women in hiring and promotion at the grocery chain's food processing plants and warehouses dating back to 1994. If a federal judge agrees, the six women's job experience at Publix would be determined as representative of the experience of about 10,000 current and former Publix workers at plants and warehouses scattered from Atlanta to Lakeland and Miami.

The case filed Thursday seeks damages of more than $50-million to be split among the 10,000 who sign forms claiming Publix made them victims of gender discrimination.

Publix denied the allegations, noting that women now hold 24 percent of all management jobs companywide, 28 percent in the plants, warehouse and corporate headquarters.

"We live in a litigious society," said company spokeswoman Jennifer Bush. "There's a lawyer lingering around every corner to target successful companies. It is easy to make claims; we'll see if they hold up."

The discrimination case is the third one filed against the Lakeland-based chain in the past two years. Publix paid $85-million to settle one that applied to as many as 160,000 women who worked in about 470 stores. A second case is pending, claiming the company has discriminated against African-Americans in hiring and promotion. The gender bias case filed Thursday applies to women not covered by the other two.

"This is the last shoe to drop on Publix," said Paul Sprenger, lead counsel for the latest case. "We'll spend millions to make this case and go to trial if necessary."

Sprenger's Washington, D.C.-based firm recently won a $58-million settlement from Charlotte, N.C.,-based First Union Corp. in an age discrimination case. With proceeds to be split up among only 238 plaintiffs, it is considered the biggest plaintiff payoff in a discrimination case in U.S. history.

The new case claims that Publix:

Segregated women into mostly low-paying dead-end jobs that typically involved chopping and packing produce while men were funneled into jobs that lead to better-paying jobs for skilled labor.

Hired most women at the warehouses and plants to work part time first, while most men immediately got full-time positions.

Used different criteria to rate women's job performance than men's, which has resulted in a disproportionate number of disciplines, firings and demotions.

Tolerated a workplace hostile to women partly by doing nothing when complaints of sexual harassment resulted in no change in co-workers' and often supervisors' behavior.

The lawyers staged a news conference Thursday before filing the suit. Five of the six women (the sixth still works at Publix and could not get the day off) gave brief versions of what they endured as a wall of seven TV cameras and five print photographers took their pictures.

Four members of the United Commercial and Food Workers union, which has tried to organize at the plants and which steered some of the women to the lawyers, stood quietly in the room. Two Publix human relations officials were escorted out, but a hired photographer and videographer recorded the event for Publix.

Women who challenged the status quo were singled out for harassment, according to the women.

Shirley Dyer was fired after 25 years at Publix, most recently as a low-level supervisor, because she stood up to constant management harassment, she said. She sought treatment for severe depression she blamed on job stress, then moved to north Georgia to escape even the presence of the store.

"I went through three years of hell getting over the treatment I got at Publix," she said.