Our attitudes towards HIV have progressed a lot in the 30 decades since it was first discovered. We know you can't catch it from touching an infected person. We know it's not just a disease for gay men and drug users (today, African Americans are the most at-risk group). But prejudice is a stubborn thing. A 26-year-old from Michigan claims that his employer harassed and ultimately fired him for being HIV-positive. Now he's suing.
In August 2008, James White started working as a patient coordinator for the Oakland County, Mich., offices of Great Expressions Dental Centers. Five months later he was diagnosed with HIV, and started going to a series of medical appointments.
When the office manager inquired about the reason for all the appointments, White told her that he was HIV positive. "I asked her not to say anything to anyone," White told POZ.
A few days later, the company's regional director, a doctor, summoned him to his office, said "I hear you have AIDS" and told him that it was OK, because White didn't work with patients.
But nothing was OK, according to White. Employees were told to disinfect everything that he touched, and followed him around with Lysol. He was banned from touching doorknobs. His supervisor would also change his schedule suddenly, and when he complied, he was noted as inexcusably absent.
It was seven months, White said, that "degraded me as a person."
His health worsened, and after a weeklong hospitalization, Great Expressions Dental Centers fired him by phone.
"I went from wanting to be an activist -- someone who spoke to groups about HIV," said White, "to someone who didn't want to leave my room for six months."
White has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to his lawyer, Nicole Thompson. When he enters public places, he gets paranoid that people are following him and scrubbing everything he touches, then he "blacks out" and can't remember anything.
After an investigation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed that the dental company, which has 150 clinics in seven states, violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. This law states that employers must make reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities, and cannot discipline or discharge them because of their infirmity. The federal workplace discrimination board sent him a right-to-sue letter.
Great Expressions declined a settlement offered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which requested more than $185,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, according to POZ. Detroit Legal Services and Thompson, who are representing White, are preparing a lawsuit.
"It's the most clear-cut case of HIV discrimination I have ever witnessed," Joshua L. Moore, the president of Detroit Legal Services, told The Detroit News. "He was going through constant harassment."
Richard Beckman, the CEO of Great Expressions Dental Centers, claims that no discrimination took place. He told The Detroit News that the company was "very sympathetic toward anybody who has HIV."
A University of Oklahoma student launched a petition on Change.org, calling for the resignation of the company's regional director. The petition garnered 41,000 signatures in just a few days, before the dental chain threatened legal action for false allegations, and the petition was removed.
It is not yet known what amount White's lawyers will be requesting, but there is precedent for a large payout in HIV discrimination cases.
In 2004, Cirque Du Soleil paid $600,000 to their former employee, Matthew Cusick, for lost wages, front pay, damages and legal fees. The aerial gymnast had been fired, because higher-ups in the circus troupe feared that he would transmit HIV to his co-workers. They said they had to avoid "known safety hazards."
Cirque was also required to provide anti-discrimination training for all of its employees.
Moore hopes Great Expressions will be forced to do the same. "A workplace imbued with ignorance and fear is unacceptable -– no one should have to tolerate it, let alone a person with a serious medical condition," he said. "The actions of Great Expressions amount to nothing less than a campaign of intimidation and error."
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