Walmart will pay for healthcare costs for employees’ same-sex spouses

Walmart just got a little less terrible when it comes to workers’ rights. Following a major legal settlement, Walmart will reimburse healthcare costs for employees’ same-sex spouses as compensation for previously denying those benefits. Since 2014, the company has provided spousal health insurance to employees in both gay and heterosexual marriages. However, from 2011 to 2013, Walmart prohibited its workers in same-sex marriages from enrolling their husbands or wives in spousal health insurance plans, meaning they had to pay their own healthcare costs out of pocket.

For Walmart employee Jacqueline Cote and her wife Diana Smithson, this meant paying $150,000 for medical bills when Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. (Hooray for America’s privatized healthcare system! Motto: Give Us Six Figures And You Might Die Anyway.)

In 2015, Cote sued Walmart on the grounds that this ban discriminated against gay employees, because come on, there’s really no way to argue that it didn’t. As a result, Walmart has agreed to reimburse out-of-pocket spousal healthcare costs for employees who were affected by its 2011-2013 policy. Employees who submit spousal healthcare expense claims of $60,000 or more will also be paid 250 percent of those costs. The settlement covers at least 1,100 people and totals $7.5 million.

In addition to redressing some pretty egregious discrimination, Walmart’s settlement is being hailed as a potential landmark victory for LGBTQ employee rights in the private sector.

Same-sex couple
CREDIT: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Since Walmart is the largest private employer in the world, its decision to not only institute equal health benefits for same-sex spouses but to also try and make up for denying that equality in the past sets a hugely significant example for other private sector employers.

Although federal employment laws already prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, private sector employment isn’t so great for LGBTQ rights. The federal ruling only covers employees and hiring in federal government organizations; in the private sector, companies can kind of do whatever the hell they want, albeit on a state-by-state basis. Twenty-two states have laws against sexual orientation-based discrimination in employment, which on one hand is much better than zero states, but on the other hand is still less than half of the country.

By agreeing to this settlement, Walmart sends a message that private sector freedoms aren’t incompatible with granting employees equality and respect. And considering the ideology of the upcoming presidential administration, it’s so important for LGBTQ employees to get the equal rights they deserve while they still can.