Why was she fired?

A Plant City woman says she lost her job because she has AIDS.

Published May 12, 2007

Two years ago, Patricia Henry's health began to nosedive. She kept a garbage can by her desk at work to cope with frequent bouts of vomiting. Pneumonia, thrush and a peculiar muscular condition that trapped food in her esophagus and left it there to rot hospitalized her for several weeks. A blood test confirmed her doctor's awful hunch: Henry had full-blown AIDS.

Shortly after telling her boss, the Plant City resident was fired. Now 41, she sued Stacey Diaz and 5-D Tropical, a Tampa fish farmer and importer, in December for AIDS-related discrimination. "She said, 'Patty, I'm sorry, I feel bad ... but we just can't have it here, ' " Henry said in an interview this week. Diaz, who declined to be interviewed, denies the claim. In court filings she says she fired Henry for missing too much work and for failing to return the day she promised.

One thing is certain: Seventeen years after Washington enacted the American with Disabilities Act, 14 years after Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for his portrayal in Philadelphia of a gay lawyer wrongly fired for having the disease and long after Florida approved workplace protections for AIDS sufferers, AIDS-related discrimination remains a stubborn, if rare, issue in the workplace.

Just look at Florida. In February, a state appeals court revived a suit filed by Cameshia Byrd, a former Wendy's cashier in Coral Springs who says she was mistreated for being HIV-positive. In 2005, the city of Clearwater settled a similar complaint filed by an ex-library employee.

We're not talking a ton of cases. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says 213 workers nationwide filed an AIDS- or HIV-related discrimination charge with the agency in fiscal year 2006, down 40 percent from its 1995 peak. Among the many more common disabilities cited as a source of discrimination last year were diabetes (756), hearing impairment (518) and back problems (1,260).

Sadly, Henry claims she contracted HIV at a prior job. A certified nursing assistant, Henry says she had just drawn blood from a schizophrenic AIDS patient at Tampa General Hospital when he stuck her with the bloody needle and sliced her with a pocketknife. Henry says she's not sure whether she will file a workers compensation suit over the alleged 2003 incident. Hospital spokesman John Dunn says there's no written record of Henry filing a report at the time. He also says she was terminated for performance issues; Henry says she resigned.

Will her lawsuit against Diaz and 5-D Tropical prevail? Henry's Fort Lauderdale attorney, Richard Celler, argues there are several weaknesses in the defense case.

There was no employee handbook on discrimination law or an internal grievance process, Celler says. 5-D did not make a good-faith effort to accommodate Henry's disability. There were no mentions of chronic absences or other disciplinary problems in her employee file. And, Celler says, the short period between Henry's telephoned confession and her firing suggests the two were related.

Though Henry suffers side effects from an experimental drug she is taking, she says she is far healthier than she was two years ago. Unemployed, she misses emergency-room work but could never get hired again because of her illness. "C'mon, one minute I have my hands inside someone's chest, " she reminisced. "Next minute, I'm in another room eating a slice of pizza."

Henry says she'd settle for her old job at 5-D, plus a seven-figure settlement. She's scored one victory: 5-D settled a separate overtime lawsuit with her in October.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Bias may be declining

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 outlawed discrimination against private-sector workers with a variety of disabilities. The number of U.S. workers who file ADA charges with the EEOC -- a necessary step before filing suit -- specifically because of HIV/AIDS-related bias has steadily dropped in recent years.



ADA charges made to EEOC

AIDS charges
1992 1,048 13
1995 19,798 353
2000 15,864 250
2006 15,625 213