When the Prevos Family Markets chain in Traverse City, Michigan, borrowed Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" anthem for its commercial jingle, former Prevos clerk Steven Sharp says it tossed aside any semblance of truth in advertising. "'We are family -- unless you have HIV," he says.
That's what he discovered when he disclosed his HIV status to Prevos in early 1993. Though he'd tested positive in 1988, Sharp was only just beginning to deal with it. He chose his alma mater, Traverse City High School, to give his first talk on AIDS prevention and awareness. Since he knew that Prevos often hired Traverse City High students, Sharp notified his immediate supervisor about his health status. "I wanted them to hear it from me first, instead of through other channels," he says.
The next day he was transferred from his position in the produce section to the receiving area, out of shoppers' sight. "They shoved me in the back of the store so nobody would have to look at the diseased pariah," Sharp says. Management explained they needed time to decide how best to deal with possible adverse publicity.
Over the next six months, Sharp was suspended with pay, offered a computer job -- with the provision that he work from his home -- and asked to submit to a doctor's exam by a Prevos-chosen physician. Ultimately, he was terminated.
So Sharp took action. He contacted organizations such as the Lambda Legal Defense Fund and the Michigan Commission of Civil Rights. "There wasn't much they could do other than refer me to three other places," Sharp says. "They offered me a lot of advice, but I wondered, 'Who is going to take this on?'" Finally, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission determined that Prevos had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and, in June 1993, filed a discrimination suit against Prevos on Sharp's behalf.
Last October -- over three years later -- a jury awarded Sharp $55,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. In addition, Prevos was ordered by the court to continue paying Sharp until he was rehired in his former position at the first available opportunity. Not surprisingly, Prevos appealed, and the awards were put on hold, where they remain. In April, a judge also put a freeze on Sharp's wages from Prevos until the appeal is heard in Cincinnati later this year.
Clearly, Sharp is frustrated. "The judgment went against them," he says. "Why isn't this over and done with?" Still, with or without the check, Sharp has come out on top. "As long as I finish the fight, I've succeeded," he says. "I'm not looking to get rich off this."
Getting rich is one thing; survival is another. It's not easy to get a job when your previous employment ended up in widely publicized litigation. That, possibly coupled with his HIV status, has kept him unemployed. Even a local gas station in desperate need of a cashier wouldn't hire him, though their reasons were vague, he says. "People are smart enough not to say anything, but if they don't want you as a cashier at a gas station... "
Still, Sharp urges others to stand up for their rights. "Anybody who gets themselves in a situation should quickly file a complaint," he advises. "There are statutory time limitations that aren't that long. In Michigan, it's six months." Sharp believes that the emergence of protease inhibitors makes AIDS awareness all the more important. "If people are going to be living longer, we'll have PWAs going back to work. I only hope that by me being out there, companies will think twice before they make rash decisions based on irrational fears."
Though Sharp is openly gay, he keeps it out of the classroom when he speaks at local high schools. "I wish I could say, 'I'm gay and I have HIV,'" he says. "But if I did, they'd never let me come back. We have enough problems getting HIV education into schools as it is." He plans to continue speaking out on AIDS awareness and prevention, but that won't put food on the table. "It does me good to try to help others, but at this point, I need a job."
Meanwhile, where does Sharp, former member of the Prevos "family," buy his groceries? "Not there," he says. "What's sad is, it's such a convenient location, but it's been a long time since I've been there."