On Dec. 1, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story about HIV in Utah to commemorate World AIDS Day and the 27th anniversary of the illness’ discovery. Among several Utahns struggling with the disease, the article featured Jess Cox and her partner 29-year-old Amanda Brown, who was infected with the virus in 2002 after an HIV positive man raped her.
The two women spoke to Tribune reporter Lisa Rosetta to help educate the public about the disease. But neither was prepared for where they said the article eventually lead them.
“When we agreed to do the interview with the Salt Lake Tribune we weren’t aware of how big it was going to be,” said Cox. “Here in our minds we thought it’d be in the health section somewhere with a little teeny picture.”
But when a photograph of Brown appeared on the paper’s front page, Cox said there was no hiding it from her coworkers at Associates in Orthopedic Surgery, the Jordan Valley Medical Center-owned clinic where Cox worked as a receptionist and Brown was a patient. Everyone read the piece, said Cox, and most of them had supportive things to say.
“I thought at the time it was a good thing. It was an eye opening experience,” said Cox. “Everyone was saying how courageous it was for us to come out and try and educate people about [HIV and AIDS].”
But Cox said she soon realized that not all of her coworkers felt that way. As she tells it, Amanda Curnico, a medical assistant at the orthopedic clinic and Douglas Burrows, one of the clinic’s doctors said nothing. Cox describes Burrows as behaving “stand-offish” and Curnico as being “rude” to her and Brown when she saw them having lunch together.
“It was just awkward and I couldn’t really put my finger on anything particular that happened at that time,” Cox said.
But eight days after the article ran, Cox said she was fired. The reason given: that she had made an error when scheduling one of Burrows’ appointments. Cox said she was surprised when she heard this reason, because such errors do occasionally happen and are usually corrected easily, either by rescheduling or fitting the patient in elsewhere in the doctor’s schedule. However, Cox said that Human Resources Director Misty Birch told her Burrows had said he could not let Cox “ruin his practice with [her] irresponsibility.”
“I had never heard a complaint personally from him before,” said Cox. In her letter to the Utah chapter of the ACLU seeking representation, Cox also said that Birch was “bypassed” in her termination.
“She was very, very surprised that this was something she didn’t know about, and from what I understood it had to go over her to be signed by someone else,” said Cox, adding that she doesn’t know who ultimately signed off on firing her. Further, she said Birch was unable to find any warnings, write ups or bad performance reviews in her employee file. Indeed, Cox said that she had received a raise and a satisfactory performance review in November.
At press time, Birch had not returned a call seeking comment on this story.
Although Cox said she has little evidence other than Burrows’ and Curnico’s cold behavior towards her, she thinks the timing of her termination was too close to the article’s publication to be coincidence.
And now, out of work right before Christmas, Cox said she faces several dilemmas. Brown is now in charge of providing for the entire family which includes Cox’s four children (three from her previous marriage, and one from her ex-husband’s first marriage). Worse, Brown cannot put the children on her health insurance because she cannot adopt them, a situation made even direr because Cox’s 17-year-old daughter needs medical attention for her pregnancy.
“With her having a teen pregnancy, I’m really trying to push not leaning on government assistance and being independent and having a job where you can provide for your children,” she explained. “I’ve been trying to do that for her by example.” Now, however, out of work and with her ex-husband not providing child support, Cox said that she has no choice but to apply for state aid.
“I’m just put in a really bad spot where I definitely feel it was discrimination,” she said. “I don’t feel like I did anything to deserve being let go.”
Now that she has been let go, Cox is trying to find a new job (she said she is currently examining a few prospects). She and Brown have also contacted the ACLU; on Dec. 12 Brown posted to her blog at amandajbrown.blogspot.com that the organization is looking into their complaint. Brown said that she hopes the ACLU can help them.
“We’re already paying thousands of dollars for lawyer fees for Jess’ divorce and we can’t afford to pay more lawyer fees,” she explained.
Brown said the situation is also hard on their four children (ages 7, 11, 13 and 17), who are already struggling to adjust to life without their father.
But whether or not the ACLU determines it can take their case, Cox and Brown say they will not “step back into the corners.”
“If anything we’re going to be more public about everything,” said Brown.
And, Cox added, the children say they want to help, too.
“[They] want to educate people as much as we do,” said Brown. “They’re extremely intelligent children, well educated, and very tolerant.”
To read more about Brown and Cox’s story, and to view their complete letter to the ACLU visit amandajbrown.blogspot.com.