By Jackie Cote
Labor Day is the traditional end of summer. For me it’s been a special summer with my wife Dee.
Dee has ovarian cancer, and is now receiving hospice care at our home in New Bedford, Mass. This spring we decided to start ticking items off her bucket list.
We just spent some time in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with Dee’s son and daughter-in-law. There, Dee got to dip her feet in the sand and the water, collect a few shells, and spend time with family. It was fantastic.
Dee’s bucket list is pretty simple: Next we’ll go to New Hampshire, where we’ll take the scenic train route around Lake Winnipesaukee.
It’s been incredibly meaningful to both of us to spend this time together. In our 24 years together, we’ve been through thick and thin, and have always been each other’s rock. Now, when Dee is well enough, we venture out. And when she’s not, we are just making sure to appreciate every minute we have together.
Labor Day is also the day we celebrate ordinary working people. That’s very much me and Dee. For the past 16 years, I’ve served as an associate at Walmart, and for many years Dee was also a Walmart associate.
Unfortunately, on this Labor Day, I’m forced to think about how much employers respect — or disrespect — the people whose labor make their businesses successful. That’s because when I most needed my employer to come through for my family, I was shocked and disappointed that Walmart would not step up, and refused to treat my family with the respect it deserves.
I had always been concerned about Dee’s health, since she had a history of cancer. When we got married — as soon as it was legal in Massachusetts — Dee had been cancer-free for some time. And though we got married primarily for the same reason everyone does — because we love each other — it also meant we would be able to take care of each other financially and legally in the dozens of ways that straight married couples already could.
Starting in 2008 and continuing through 2012, I tried to add Dee to Walmart’s health insurance plan during Walmart’s open enrollment period, in an effort to receive a benefit that was made available to all other married Walmart employees. But when I entered Dee’s gender as “female,” the online system stopped me from going any further.
So I picked up the phone and called Walmart’s headquarters — and I was told that Walmart did not offer health insurance to the same-sex spouses of Walmart employees.
Soon, my inability to insure Dee became more than an insult, when Dee’s cancer re-emerged in August 2012. Over a short period of time, we racked up medical bills in excess of $150,000 that we were unable to pay. In addition to the nightmare of cancer, we endured the stress of being hounded by bill collectors. And Dee particularly felt guilty, being unable to pay the wonderful health workers who were providing her with such good care.
Effective Jan. 1, 2014, Walmart changed its policy to extend spousal health insurance benefits to same-sex spouses of Walmart employees. That’s a good step, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because Walmart didn’t address the fact that hundreds or possibly thousands of people like me and Dee were greatly harmed when Walmart engaged in discrimination.
The harms we suffered continue this day. It doesn’t address the fact that Walmart changed its policy voluntarily, that Walmart claims it is lawful to discriminate against gay and lesbian workers, and that Walmart could change its policy to again discriminate at any time.
Dee and I want to be able to pay back the medical professionals we owe money to, and we want to be able to focus on Dee’s health without worrying about collection calls. We also want to be able to help other people who are in our situation — former or current Walmart employees married to someone of the same sex, who were unable to get their spouses covered by Walmart’s health insurance plan before Jan. 1, 2014.
That’s why we are working with lawyers at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to sue Walmart on behalf of all the working families who were harmed by Walmart’s unlawful discrimination. We are hopeful that we can make things right for ourselves and for others.
That would make a meaningful Labor Day.
Jackie Cote is the named plaintiff in the class action lawsuit Cote v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.now pending in the federal court in Boston, Mass. Inquiries about the case, including from similarly situated employees, can be directed to email@example.com.