An HIV-positive diagnosis just two days before his birthday last July left the devastated 30-year-old holed up in his apartment, unemployed and depressed. A position at the new Uptown hot spot seemed like the key to helping him pick up the pieces.
But in a lawsuit filed last week, Berg said his employment there ended unceremoniously when he told his manager he had the disease, leaving him outraged and believing he was the victim of discrimination — allegations the bar’s attorney vehemently denies.
“HIV doesn’t have the stigma that it used to. This isn’t ‘Philadelphia,’ I’m not Tom Hanks,” Berg said, referring to the 1993 film about an attorney who sued the law firm that fired him for having AIDS. “I’m not dying, and this is something that is controllable.”
In a statement, Bar Louie attorney Richard Pins said the business rejected Berg’s multiple attempts to settle his claim for money before the lawsuit was filed and made public.
“Bar Louie not only rejected those overtures, but instructed me to file if he did not, so that the facts might be presented more quickly to a court of law,” Pins wrote. Bar Louie and its owner, La Cross, Wis.-based Fortney Companies, has denied Berg’s complaints in an answer served to his attorney, Lori Peterson, before the lawsuit was formally filed.
Berg’s claims against the company are not unheard of in a day and age where HIV-related fears still exist, particularly in the restaurant and food service industries, said Lynn Mickelson, legal services manager at the Minnesota AIDS Project. About 5 percent of the 402 cases Mickelson and her staff handled last year dealt with employment discrimination claims or concerns.
“I don’t know what it is, but the issues just never seem to let up around food safety, which is ridiculous given what we know about HIV,” she said.
In a response, Pins said that despite Berg’s allegations, his HIV status played “no role relative to his employment at Bar Louie.”
Put in ‘never-never land’
According to the lawsuit, which alleges disability discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Berg was hired in August as part of the crew that would help launch Bar Louie in Minneapolis. About a month later, he privately told a manager he was HIV positive and may be unable to work a few shifts until he felt better as his body adjusted to new medication to control the virus.
When he tried to return to work days later, Berg said he was taken off the schedule and removed from previously assigned shifts. He said he was given the runaround when he requested documentation needed to maintain public assistance, including health insurance and vouchers for medicine. “They put him in never-never land,” Peterson said.
Peterson claims Bar Louie maintained Berg had quit, which Berg denies. Berg said that once Peterson contacted Bar Louie on his behalf, he was placed back on the schedule. However, he’s not interested in returning. He’s already found new employment at a Minneapolis restaurant where its management knows about his HIV status. He and his partner, who is also HIV positive, are both feeling well.
Berg said he’s not out for money, other than to get back what he lost last fall. “I’m not an activist,” he said. “I just want to move forward with my disease and my life.”
However, Pins said the bar is confident Berg’s claim will be dismissed. The business is an equal opportunity employer “which does not discriminate in service, hiring or employment, period,” he said.