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INTRO: Cirque du Soleil has agreed to the highest settlement ever in the nation for alleged employment discrimination based on disability. The employee was HIV positive. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: Matthew Cusick gave up a good job as a personal trainer to join the prestigious Cirq du Solei's Mystere show. The company's own doctors, said it's okay for him to perform despite his HIV-positive status. But Cusick said managers still called him a 'known safety hazard' and canceled his contract. Las Vegas freelance journalist Steve Freiss normally covers Cirq du Solie - but didn't cover this because he couldn't believe such a progressive company would do such a thing. He kept expecting the company to come up with other reasons for firing Cusick.
FREISS: No, in interviews they were very blunt, saying yes they were very concerned that he might bleed and give somebody HIV that is really 1980's
PLASKON: Lambda Legal Defense filed a complaint a year ago under the Americans with Disabilities Act for discrimination in employment and the story gained national attention from HIV and gay activist groups. But it wasn't until the past few months however, that Cirq asked experts and became convinced that HIV positive employees really pose no threat to others. So Cirq's Renee-Claude Menard says they offered Cusick his job back.
MENARD: Our mistake was not knowing, it's an education thing, not knowing the risks involved in HIV transmission
PLASKON: But Cusick declined the offer according to his attorneys because of the Public Hostility he had faced from cirq during the dispute. Today the company settled for 600 thousand dollars - the largest disability discrimination settlement on record at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hayly Gorenberg AIDS Project Director for Lambda Legal says Cirq could have learned from studies from the Olympics to the National Basketball Association
GORENBERG: That would have been strong evidence not only in policy but also in experience because we have over 20 years experience with HIV and millions of people involved in athletics but there has never been a case of transmission of HIV.
PLASKON: She says there are 900 thousand people in the U-S with HIV or AIDS
MENAGH: And they are working and not necessarily working desk jobs.
PLASKON: Employment discrimination based on HIV status remains one of the most common complaints Lambda fields from the public. Now Cirq hopes to be part of the solution. Under the settlement agreement the company will host annual anti-discrimination training for its employees world-wide, adopt a zero tolerance policy for discrimination based on HIV, and will the company hire HIV positive acrobats from now on? It says definitely.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR