Nobody likes going to the dentist but for James White, going into his job as an office worker at Great Expressions Dental Center in Eastside Detroit was tantamount to heading into a war zone.
White, 26, was diagnosed with HIV about six months after he started working at the dental center. When he requested time off for doctors appointments (which was approved), he was asked by the office manager to explain the nature of the visits.
“I told her I had tested positive for HIV,” White told POZ magazine. “I thought it would be easier for me in the long run. I asked her not to say anything to anyone.”
But just a few days later, the company’s regional director said to White, “I hear you have AIDS.” White explained that he was HIV+ but the doctor replied that there was no difference between HIV and AIDS. Then, according to White, he said “it was okay because I did not work in back with the patients.”
But it was not “okay”—it was the start of a seven-month period of abuse and discrimination that landed White in the hospital and gave him post-traumatic stress disorder.
As POZ‘s Todd Heywood reports:
“[White] says he was prohibited from touching doorknobs in the office. Staff members followed him around with Lysol, spraying and wiping down the surfaces he touched. He was subjected to unexpected changes in his schedule—called and told to come in later than scheduled, or to leave earlier than expected. When he complied with the scheduling offers, he was written up for unexcused absences.
After months of this, he said he was overwhelmed.
His health took a turn for the worse, and he was hospitalized for a week. During that time, the clinic decided to fire him. They called him the day before he was to return to work and informed him that he was fired for excessive unexcused absences.”
“I felt like my character was destroyed,” he says. “I went from wanting to be an activist—someone who spoke to groups about HIV—to someone who didn’t want to leave my room for six months.”
White is now seeking legal recourse for what looks to be a clear-cut case of HIV-related job discrimination. And the Detroit office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is inclined to agree: they ruled that there was reasonable cause to believe the dental company had seriously violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in their treatment of White, who still suffers complications from his time there.
White says he “blacks out” when he goes to the grocery store and doesn’t remember being there. Right before the blackouts, White says, he feels like people are following him around and sanitizing everything he touches or that people are talking about him.
His lawyer, Nicole Thompson, says that Great Expressions—which has offices in several states—declined a settlement offered by the EEOC. But neither she nor White are deterred: “We’re in it for the long haul. If we have to take it all the way to trial, we will take it all the way to trial,” said Thompson.
We hope White wins his case, but we wouldn’t mind seeing a little Texas Justice in the Motor City: Root canals without Novocaine all around.
Image by Mohamad Itani