Tractor Supply Company is facing a lawsuit after a manager made a worker’s HIV infection known throughout the store and to a customer — resulting in the worker’s harassment and eventual firing, federal officials say.
Store managers and workers called the woman a “contagion” or “contamination” of the Hattiesburg, Mississippi retail store and said it needed to be “under quarantine” after they learned her confidential medical information, according to a complaint filed Sept. 29 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The worker was told that her having HIV “made everybody highly uncomfortable” by store managers after one pressured her into revealing the medical condition she was born with, the complaint states.
Now the EEOC is accusing Tractor Supply of disability discrimination and says the company fired the worker after she complained of the repeated harassment, according to a news release. The lawsuit comes after the agency tried reaching a pre-litigation settlement.
Tractor Supply spokeswoman Mary Winn Pilkington told McClatchy News that the company does not comment on pending litigation in a Sept. 30 statement.
Human immunodeficiency virus is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which the EEOC accuses Tractor Supply of violating.
While the former worker has HIV, Tractor Supply is further accused of mistaking her condition for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), according to the complaint. If HIV goes untreated, it can result in AIDS, which the worker did not have.
Bradley Anderson, the director of the EEOC Birmingham, Alabama, district, said in a statement that employees should “be able to work without worrying about whether they will be harassed because of their disability.”
“That’s what the ADA requires, and the EEOC is committed to forcing these important protections under the law,” Anderson added.
The woman’s time working at Tractor Supply Company
In April 2018, the woman began working at Tractor Supply in Hattiesburg as a full-time “team leader” after working part-time at its location in Laurel in late 2017, the EEOC says.
The worker’s previous manager at the Laurel location had persistently questioned why the woman was unable to work certain days, forcing her to reveal she had HIV to stop the questioning, according to the EEOC’s complaint. On those days she could not work, the worker had scheduled medical appointments and tests.
Afterward, the Laurel store manager made it public that the worker had HIV by notifying managers and workers, as well as a customer, at the Hattiesburg store where the worker was promoted to, the complaint states.
The EEOC did not specify possible motivations as to why the woman’s medical condition was publicized.
As the worker’s confidential health condition spread even further throughout the Hattiesburg store by word of mouth, the harassment ensued, according to the EEOC.
Tractor Supply managers and workers would go “out of their way to avoid her due to unfounded fears of HIV transmission,” the complaint states.
“When the employee complained about this harassment and the disclosure of her confidential medication information, the company disciplined her,” the release says. The EEOC says the discipline was not properly justified.
Ultimately, the worker contacted the EEOC and eventually filed a charge of discrimination with the agency, according to the complaint.
Days after Tractor Supply received a notice of the charge, the company fired the worker, the complaint states.
The lawsuit seeks to recover back pay and damages for the woman, as well as to have Tractor Supply prevent further discrimination from occurring, according to the release.
Tractor Supply is a nationwide retail chain selling home, agriculture, garden products and more.
Hattiesburg is 90 miles southeast of Jackson.