Starr Restaurants, HIV-Phobic?

Does Stephen Starr have a lot of explaining to do over the firing of Jack Mountford, 27, who alleges he was fired because he was HIV+, or is he the same ally we here in Philadelphia have known?

It was reported in the New York Post on Monday that Mountford filed suit. In Manhattan Federal Court, against the Starr Restaurants organization and their Manhattan Buddakan restaurant.

Mountford, an actor-dancer from Orlando, Florida, began working as a server at Buddakan in February 2013, according to the Post, where he quickly established himself as a ‘closer’ who would turn over tables and offer guests expensive bottles of alcohol.

“I was a fast table turner and I was great with people,” Mountford told the Post, “my sales were incredibly high.”  He claims his sales were as high as $20,000 a week at the exclusive Asian eatery.

Despite his success, however, he said that he was fired last summer after a new general manager was brought in to run Buddakan by the restaurant’s owners.

Under his previous bosses, Mountford says that he was treated well – so well, in fact, that he was permitted to take breaks so that he could inject himself in the stomach with medication.

Mountford was also permitted to fly home to Orlando so that he could meet with his doctors there.

But Mountford said that things began to change when Brandon Wergeles took over as the restaurant’s general manager in June 2016.

According to the lawsuit, Wergeles was speaking to other people about Mountford’s condition.

Wergeles even summoned Mountford for a meeting, during which the server was told that he had gone from being a ‘huge asset’ to a ‘liability’ because a customer said that he had mistakenly charged him $62 twice on a credit card bill, according to the lawsuit.

Mountford was then accused by his new boss of taking an unauthorized vacation, the lawsuit says.

Then Wergeles is alleged to have told Mountford that he had ‘heard other things that were concerning.’

When Mountford asked Wergeles if he was referring to his condition, the general manager is alleged to have replied: ‘Don’t you think I should be made aware of a health condition that could be detrimental to your job performance?’

According to the lawsuit, Wergeles fired Mountford in ‘humiliating’ fashion. Mountford alleges that one of the managers escorted him out of the restaurant.

Wergeles did ‘offer to write [Mountford] a glowing recommendation,’ according to court papers.

Mountford says that Wergeles’ claims that he took unauthorized vacations and overcharged a customer were a pretext to fire him.

When QUEERtimes contacted Starr Restaurants and inquired about the firing of Mr. Mountford, Lois Najarian O’Neill, of the New York based PR firm The Door, which is representing Starr Restaurants and Buddakan, told me that, “Mr. Mountford previously made this complaint to the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and the EEOC dismissed the action because it was unable to conclude that the information established a violation of the law.”

When asked about the hiring of individuals who are HIV+, I was told that “Equal Employment Opportunity has been and will continue to be a fundamental principle of STARR Restaurants.  An individual’s HIV status is not a factor in any hiring decision.”

I asked directly about the firing of Mountford and his claim he was fired due to his HIV status and the response was as follows, “The Company’s (sp) policy is to not comment on employees (sp) personnel actions, but as Mr. Mountford has decided to take this matter to the press in an effort to bolster his meritless claims, we can say that the facts will demonstrate that Mr. Mountford’s termination was performance-related, including violation of company policies. It absolutely was not because of his HIV status.”

When asked If Stephen Starr had any comment we were given the following statement, “The Company is a very strong supporter of the LGBTQ community.  The Company (sp) has participated in Dining Out for Life since 2009 and contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Action Wellness (formerly ActionAIDS) and Food & Friends (in DC) both of which are Agencies (sp) that support individuals with HIV/AIDS and related illnesses.  Stephen Starr and other individuals in our organization have personally been recognized with the Friend for Life award by ActionWellness – which acknowledges the recipients as being advocates for, and recognizes their significant commitment to, the LGBTQ community. The Company remains committed to its continued support of the community. Stephen passionately rejects any claim that calls into question his and the Company’s commitment to its support of the LGBTQ community.  Starr is confident that Mountford’s claims will be found meritless.”

Stephen Starr has shown himself to be an ally of the LGBTQ community, and for that we need to wait for this suit to make its way through the courts.  Is it possible that the new general manager of Buddakan was HIV-phobic and fired Mountford for that reason?  YES, it is still very possible that the action taken by the general manager was done independently of the stated policies of Starr Restaurants, and if this is the case, Starr owes the LGBTQ community an apology and should pay Mountford a fair sum in order to make this right with our community.

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