By Staff Report
Sep. 16, 2011
A Florida man who was fired November 2 may be the first American employee to lose his job for having had a drug-resistant bacterial infection that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in the U.S. each year.
The events that led to Morris Yomtov’s firing began innocently enough as office banter regarding news reports that the deadly “superbug” methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, was responsible for nearly 19,000 deaths in 2005, more than double reported by researchers five years earlier. That mortality rate, published in the October 16 Journal of the American Medical Association, surpasses the number of annual deaths attributed to HIV/AIDS or homicide.
Yomtov, a 66-year-old retiree, took a job as an account executive with CPT of South Florida, a small Miami-based IT services company, last summer to help pay his property taxes. He mentioned to co-workers that he had acquired a MRSA infection two years ago while clearing brush left in his yard after Hurricane Wilma.
“So I say, ‘It’s really a nasty thing.’ I say, ‘I came very close to having my hand amputated,’ ” Yomtov says. “An hour later the owner of the company says pack your bags and leave. He says, ‘You couldn’t have had it two years ago because it didn’t exist two years ago.’ ”
MRSA, which is most commonly acquired in hospitals but has also been seen in schoolchildren and athletes, was first discovered in England in 1961.
Yomtov says his boss was concerned that Yomtov could infect co-workers. Later, Yomtov was told he had to produce a written note from his doctor saying he was not infected before he could return to work.
Yomtov’s supervisor at CPT, Barry Hess, did not respond to requests for comment. A secretary at CPT confirmed Yomtov was formerly employed by the company.
Teresa Smith de Cherif, who recently completed her fellowship in infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Miami, was one of the first physicians to treat Yomtov, who is an Air Force veteran. After several courses of antibiotics, the infection cleared and Yomtov’s swollen left hand returned to normal.
She says she told Yomtov’s boss over the phone and in writing that he was fine and should be able to work. Nonetheless, Yomtov says, on Friday, November 2, a vice president at CPT told him he was fired.
“He just said, ‘Don’t come Monday,’ ” Yomtov says.
Yomtov has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but Kelly-Ann Cartwright, an attorney specializing in employment law in the Miami office of Holland and Knight, says his case may be limited. Florida is an “at-will” state, meaning employers can fire employees without having to show why.
Other than HIV/AIDS, state law does not provide protection for people fired for having an infectious disease, she says. Yomtov would have to prove he was discriminated against under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which would likely require him to show that his infection was perceived by his employer to be a disability, Cartwright says.
Smith de Cherif says that while the bug is serious, requires treatment and can lead to complications, employers can avoid contagion in the workplace by becoming “advocates for employee wellness” by providing annual flu shots and other vaccines, making it easy for employees to wash hands, and providing time off to those who are sick.
“Sound principles will help prevent infections,” she says.
Yomtov says he was made a pariah, and that the case against his former employer is based on principle.
“I’m a New York boy,” says Yomtov, who is originally from the Bronx. “I was in the military. I’m not going to allow people to talk to me like that.”
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