Cruise Ship Spa Company Accused of Discriminating Against HIV-Positive Applicant

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Daniel Dowd has lived with HIV for fifteen years. He has overcome the shock of diagnosis, the fear of death, and the mountains of pills. But it wasn't until he applied for a job with a Miami-based cruise ship contractor that Dowd says he faced open discrimination.

Dowd was poised to become a personal trainer for Steiner -- a company contracted to run the gym and spa aboard a Miami-based cruise ship -- when he was suddenly sacked after disclosing he was HIV-positive.

"You just can't do this in this day and age," he says. "It's discriminatory!"

Dowd's ordeal began about a year ago. The 41-year-old had recently moved to the small city of Sligo, Ireland, from his native Manchester. Work was hard to find, so he applied for a position as a personal trainer for Steiner.

The Coral Gables-based company calls itself "the largest and most renowned company that operates spas at sea." It contracts with most major cruise lines including Norwegian, Carnival, Celebrity, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.

In October of 2013, Steiner asked Dowd to attend an interview in Dublin. Dowd drove the two and a half hours across the tiny country. Before he showed up to the interview, however, he met with his doctor to double-check that working on a cruise ship wouldn't be an issue. "He said there was no problem whatsoever," Dowd says.

The interview went well and ten days later Dowd received a contract in the mail. When the documents arrived, Dowd didn't see HIV on the list of ailments precluding employment. But he decided to list his HIV-positive status as a precondition anyways. "I thought I might as well be honest," he says.

A few days later, Dowd received a terse email from a doctor named Jonathan Levy.

"I am afraid that as you have a communicable illness, despite your excellent counts, you would not be able to work on a ship at sea," he said. "If you became ill or lost your tablets and you were 48 hours from land, this would be a major problem. You will need to look for a land based job where you can be monitored on a regular basis."

Dowd was baffled. In the decade and a half since he learned of his condition, he had worked for numerous companies. None of them had treated him this way. He is in excellent health, he says.

When he complained, however, he was forwarded another email from the same doctor that said, bluntly: "Steiner do not accept anyone with HIV due to the fact that the condition is likely to require constant monitoring and medical assistance."

"When I disclosed my status, they didn't bother to phone me. They didn't even look at me. I was just a name on the paper," he says. "They just said no to a whole category of people. It doesn't affect just me, but everybody who is HIV positive. That's millions of people."

Dowd has spent the past year angrily contacting health organizations around Ireland, England, and the U.S. He believes that by refusing to hire him, Steiner violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Although the ADA primarily applies to American citizens, it also applies to American companies, says Miami attorney Matthew Dietz.

"What does the fact that HIV - which is communicable through having sex or sharing injection drug equipment such as needles with another person - have to do with becoming ill or losing tablets?" Dietz says. "This is the type of stereotypical nonsense that the ADA was enacted to prevent."

When contacted by New Times, Steiner admitted someone at the company may have messed up.

"We certainly do not have a policy that says HIV-positive people cannot work for us," said Steiner general counsel Bob Boehm. "To the extent that any of our employees did say that to [Dowd], that is wrong."

Boehm said he regretted his company's "miscommunication" and encouraged Dowd to reapply.

Dowd isn't interested. He believes that the emails he received do reflect Steiner's policy, so he doesn't want anything to do with the company. "This is not an error or a mistake," he says. "This is blatant discrimination."

Dowd is so disgusted that he says he doesn't even want to file a lawsuit against the company.

"This isn't about compensation," he says. "This is about saying: 'You can't do this!'"

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