Understanding Your Rights and Responsibilities as an HIV-Positive Person in the Workplace
Table of Contents
You can do a lot to prevent HIV discrimination at work by learning about your rights and
responsibilities in the workplace. Here are answers to some of the questions
most frequently asked by people living with HIV (HIV+) in relation to their
Frequent Workplace Questions
How do I request a reasonable accommodation?
If side effects or symptoms interfere with work, you might ask for changes in
your working conditions that would allow you to continue doing a good job.
Suppose your HIV drugs make you nauseated in the morning. Suppose your job
could be done just as well if you came in an hour later and stayed an hour
later. A change like that is called a "reasonable accommodation." If you feel
you need a reasonable accommodation, it is your responsibility to ask your
employer for one. There are several bits of information you will need to gather
- Name the specific functional limitation you want your employer to
accommodate (i.e., fatigue)
- Be specific about the change you need to address the limitation (i.e., rest
breaks every 90 minutes)
- Back up your request with a health care provider's note that supports the
functional limitation -- but does not state the diagnosis!
- Make it clear that you understand the purpose of the accommodation: you
still have to be able to perform the whole job, even if you have to work longer
or different hours
- Give the request to the person who arranges reasonable accommodation for
all conditions -- this person is usually not your supervisor. This person may be
the company nurse, HR (human resources) representative, shop steward, or an
officer of the company.
- If you cannot do the whole job even with the accommodation, it is important
to consider taking a short-term leave or asking for a job with different
requirements that you can meet
How can I get to work on time when I am facing serious diarrhea for two hours after I get up in the morning?
The diarrhea may be an adjustment to new HIV drugs. Other than getting up two
hours earlier, you could:
- Ask for an accommodation (i.e., later arrival time) until you and your
health care provider can resolve the diarrhea. Back up your request with a note
from your provider.
- Offer to change your shift to start and end two hours later. Sometimes this
is a benefit to an employer with customers who live in other time zones.
- Advise your supervisor that you have a new medication and will need
frequent bathroom breaks while you adjust
If I have been discriminated against, to whom do I complain?
Start with your own supervisor, who is responsible for stopping
discriminatory behavior. If that does not yield satisfactory results, or if the
discrimination is coming from your supervisor, go to HR or the person
responsible for employee relations. If you still do not get satisfactory
results, explain the situation to a company officer in writing. If you are
still experiencing discrimination with no company action to resolve the issue,
go to the US
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is important to document and
keep track of all your conversations, writings, and efforts.
What should I tell people if I am injured and bleeding and someone is trying to help me?
Hopefully, by now everyone is using universal precautions. Universal
precautions are things people do to protect themselves from contact with other
people's bodily fluids -- like wearing gloves. People administering first aid
can respond to you safely if they use personal protective equipment (PPE, like
gloves, goggles, or face shields) and assume that you are infectious for all
blood borne diseases. If you know your employer has not provided first aid
training for a long time, try to encourage your employer to provide updated
first aid training for the benefit of all workers.
Rights in the Workplace: Know the Law
Several laws cover your rights as an HIV+ person at work:
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990:
- If you can do the whole job, you are a qualified individual with a
- If HIV or a side effect limits you somehow, you have a functional
limitation and can request a reasonable accommodation
- If you need a change in your job because of the limitation, tell your
employer that you have a disability -- you do not have to disclose your HIV status. Talk about what you can and cannot do. Use
functional limitation language and back it up with a note from your health care
provider that suggests a solution but does not state the diagnosis.
- You pose no threat to other workers' health on the job; being fired because
you are living with HIV is illegal in the US
- The ADA is a tool that deserves wise, careful use; learn more about it from
the Job Accommodation
- Consolidation Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) of 1986:
- COBRA provides certain workers (and their spouses and dependent children) a
right to 18 months of health insurance coverage at group rates following
certain events that cause people to lose their health insurance coverage.
- Events that qualify you for COBRA as an employee include: quitting your
job, being fired from your job (as long as it was not because of misconduct),
or getting a reduction in your hours such that you are no longer eligible for
benefits (e.g., group health insurance). As a spouse or dependent child of an
employee, you also qualify for COBRA in the event of divorce or legal
separation from the covered employee, death of the covered employee, or the
covered employee becoming eligible for Medicare.
- To qualify for COBRA, you must have been enrolled in the employer's group
insurance plan while the covered employee worked for the employer.
- To sign up for COBRA coverage, you need to tell the group health insurance
plan administrator within 60 days of the qualifying event (e.g., loss of job).
The employer is also supposed to tell the group health insurance plan
administrator of the event, and you should receive a letter telling you that
you can choose to sign up for COBRA coverage within a couple of weeks. You then
have 60 days to decide whether or not you want COBRA coverage. You have 45 days
from the date you sign up for COBRA coverage to pay the first premium.
- It is important to realize that, when you are an active employee and
covered by your employer's group plan, your employer usually pays part of the
premium for health insurance. However, COBRA coverage is generally more
expensive than coverage for active employees because COBRA participants have to
pay the full premium themselves.
- Health Insurance Portability and Affordability Act (HIPAA) of 1996:
- HIPAA enables workers to continue and transfer their health insurance if
they change or lose their jobs; this prevents insurance gaps when you go from
one insured situation to another
- HIPAA protects against the sharing of confidential health information (and
carries stiff fines for disclosing someone's medical information at work or in
a medical setting)
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993:
- FMLA provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in one 12-month period to
deal with a family issue or medical problem, either for you or an immediate
family member. This law only applies to private-sector employers with over 50
- You can take FMLA leave a few hours at a time, if necessary
- FMLA leave is separate from short-term disability and is not the same thing
as sick days or personal time off (PTO)
- FMLA leave has its own application form
- The FMLA form asks you to identify the reason for the leave. The reason is
one of six broad categories listed on the form. If you want to protect your
confidentiality, you do not have to supply a diagnosis on the form. If you need
help filling out the form, ask a social worker or nurse at your health care
Taking Care of Yourself at Work
- Keep track of all of your performance reviews. They are a testament to your
ability to perform the work required. You may need them if someone learns your
HIV status and suddenly begins giving you poor reviews (note: this is
discrimination, and it is illegal!).
- It is important that you think carefully before disclosing your HIV status
at work. Try to have realistic expectations about the possible outcome.
- Set a respectful tone at work in regards to health privacy and refuse to
discuss other employees' medical conditions
- Focus on doing a great job