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Fri, Jul 04, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Wal-Mart adds protections for gays


Wal-Mart Stores Inc changed its anti-discrimination policy to include gay and lesbian employees after several workers at the largest private employer in the US complained that they felt left out.

Company managers will outline the new protections today to the Bentonville, Arkansas-based chain's 1.3 million employees, spokeswoman Mona Williams said. The policy change took effect May 1.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has no plans to extend medical benefits to unmarried couples "regardless of sexual orientation," Williams said. Senior management received several letters over the past few months from gay Wal-Mart workers asking to be included in the anti-bias policy, Williams said.

The Pride Foundation, a Seattle gays rights group, also pushed for changes.

"It's a move on Wal-Mart's part to be a good citizen," said Deborah Weinstein, a partner of employment law firm Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott in Philadelphia. "Now the question is whether they can live up to their commitment because their track record hasn't been so great."

Wal-Mart, which has been sued by the US government 16 times for allegedly violating anti-discrimination laws, is asking a federal judge to not grant class-action status to a lawsuit that claims the company pays female employees less than their male counterparts.

The Pride Foundation's offices are closed for the US Independence Day holiday until July 9, according to a message on its answering machine.

Shares of Wal-Mart rose US$1.25 to US$55.60 at 3:27pm in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The stock had risen 7.6 percent this year.

Wal-Mart will include the protections for gays and lesbians in its employee handbooks and its computer-based training on diversity and sexual harassment, Williams said.

The retailer said it has been considering the change for some time and wasn't responding to the US Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down a sodomy law in Texas.

"We're much more responsive to our own associates and customers than an outside group," Williams said. The "associates said they love this company and wanted to feel like it was their Wal-Mart. We took that to heart and listened so absolutely everyone feels included."

Nine out of the 10 largest Fortune 500 companies have rules prohibiting discrimination against gay workers, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay-rights organization that monitors discrimination laws. Exxon-Mobil Corp is the exception.

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