Walmart and one of its managers in a New Jersey store have been hit with a lawsuit alleging that a transgender employee was harassed and then fired over her gender identity.
Samantha Azzarano began working at Walmart store in Deptford, New Jersey as a service associate in September of 2012. In January of the next year, she informed a manager that she is transgender. Later that year, she began outwardly expressing her gender identity and had her name badge changed to Samantha. The lawsuit says that there were no problems with her coworkers or performance.
That is, until another manager, Sheena Wyckoff, joined Azzarano’s team in January of 2014. “That’s when the trouble began,” Azzarano’s lawyer, Kevin M. Costello, told ThinkProgress.
According to the complaint, Wyckoff referred to Azzarano as “Samantha, Robert [her birth name]…he/she…whatever,” “that fucking tranny,” and told Azzarano that “we are always walking on eggshells for you.” The use of the slur tranny is particularly troubling to Costello. “If we were at all uncertain about some of Ms. Wyckoff’s very obvious discriminatory remarks before that…this kind of put the nail in the coffin,” he said. “The word ‘tranny’ is not a word that acceptable to use to describe a trans person. It’s as unacceptable as a racial epithet to describe a black person.”
The complaint also alleges that Wyckoff directed an inordinate amount of criticism at Azzarano, raised her voice and yelled at her, and eventually started writing Azzarano up and coaching her on her performance, none of which was done to other workers who weren’t transgender.
“Clearly she had a problem with Samantha being Samantha,” Costello said.
The incidents culminated in Wyckoff firing Azzarano in June of 2014. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Azzarano told her legal team that she wanted to bring the lawsuit on behalf of herself, given that the law protects her from discrimination, and any other transgender people at Walmart who may have experienced similar abuse. The lawsuit seeks to stop any ongoing abuse of transgender people at Walmart and the reinstatement of Azzarano’s job plus backpay.
She’s right that she should be protected from workplace discrimination as a transgender woman. Thanks to a provision in New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination that stipulates protections based on gender identity and expression, hers is one of just 19 states and Washington D.C. where transgender people are explicitly covered by anti-discrimination laws. Federal law doesn’t enumerate protections for gender identity in the workplace, although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans sex-based discrimination.
The landscape would be clearer and more uniform, however, with an explicit ban. The Equality Act, a bill introduced in Congress this summer, would explicitly ban employment discrimination against all LGBT people. Among surveyed transgender people, 90 percent say they have experienced harassment or mistreatment at work or had to take actions to avoid it, while about half have been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their gender identity. They also experience an unemployment rate double that of the general population.