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When AIDS Hits the Workplace

By Mark S. King

November 1999

An estimated 90% of people living with HIV do not leave their jobs when they are diagnosed. Suddenly many more corporations than ever before are dealing with HIV positive employees. But are they prepared?

When Bill took an extended sick leave, rumors began. His return was met with distrust among co-workers, who avoided him socially and declined sharing everything from rest rooms to computers to pencils.

Whether or not Bill actually suffered from HIV/AIDS is unimportant; office productivity lapsed as co-workers gave in to unfounded fear and misinformation. Citing their concern for his mental ability, management "retired" Bill. Bill responded with an expensive and ultimately successful lawsuit.

If it were not so tragic, it might be fascinating to learn how a disease which hardly existed a decade ago has now become a hotly debated, controversial and deadly illness - so deadly in fact that AIDS is now the nation's leading killer of young adults ages 25-44. Not cancer or accidents.


AIDS

Because this age group also amounts to more than half the nation's workforce, human resource personnel have increasingly faced the challenge of how to best offer fair treatment to employees with HIV or AIDS, and how to stem office disruption when co-workers learn of a case of AIDS in the workplace.

Both issues are addressed as part of a program of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Business Responds To AIDS, in which two distinct plans of action are recommended.

First, employers must develop a policy on AIDS to clarify their consistent response to issues of HIV/AIDS in the workplace. Second, the CDC strongly recommends employee HIV education -- which can reduce fear, prevent discriminatory behavior which may invite lawsuits, and prevent loss of productivity if trouble erupts when an employee discloses they are HIV positive.

An educational workshop on AIDS, specific to the work environment, can inform employees how not to get a potentially fatal disease and act as insurance against future crisis among the workforce.

According to the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS, after only ten years, AIDS is the most litigated health concern in American legal history. With the bulk of lawsuits being employment related, here are points which should be part of any workplace AIDS policy. A good policy will help you meet the needs of management, HIV-infected employees and co-workers.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel; sample AIDS policies are available through the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS (1-800-997-6227).

In a 1993 survey conducted by the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS, 50% of employees questioned said AIDS was their number one health concern. All the employees surveyed had a generally positive opinion of employers who provided HIV information -- a more positive opinion than they had of either the media or the government. This puts the business community in a unique position to offer vital health information to an enormous portion of that 25-44 year old age group -- the men and women of our nation's workforce.


Mark S. King is Director of Education for AID Atlanta, the largest AIDS service agency in the southeast United States, and also serves as Chair of the Mayor's AIDS Advisory Board. He is currently completing his first book, A Place Like This, about his experiences as an HIV positive gay man.




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