AIDS in workplace forces companies to address employee concerns

``A year ago, if someone were to come down with AIDS in here, complete panic would break out,'' says Chuck Woodman, manager of Pacific Bell in San Francisco. Now, he says, ``there is nothing but empathy for fellow workers who have AIDS.'' What has caused this turnaround, says David Goodenough, a Pacific Bell employee who has been diagnosed as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is education. ``Because of [my company's] education program,'' he says, ``I haven't suffered any discrimination, and it's brought me closer to my colleagues. It's stopped a lot of the old attitudes of fear and intolerance.''

Because the disease has been concentrated among intravenous drug users and homosexuals, however - 39 percent are in New York and San Francisco - a great number of companies in the United States have felt removed from the issue. Less than 10 percent of the companies have AIDS programs, according to Alan Emery, a clinical psychologist and business consultant with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, a main provider of educational materials on AIDS.

But as AIDS has spread to a broader percentage of corporate America, companies have been forced to acknowledge the problem. ``Companies that still think they're not going to hire anyone who has AIDS are simply sticking their heads in the sand,'' Emery says.

When workers' concern for health and safety conflicts with the demands of privacy, ``many employers feel pushed and pulled,'' says Stephen Mayer, a partner in the New Jersey law firm of Grotta, Glassman & Hoffman, which represents management in labor and employment matters throughout the US. ``They've got the threat of lawsuits on one side, and public pressure to do something about it on the other side. If they're not careful, they can be sued for invasion of privacy or defamation of character.''

An employer does, however, have an ``absolute right to expect employees to come to work fit to do their jobs,'' Mr. Mayer adds.

``We want to keep them gainfully employed as long as possible,'' says Mr. Woodman at Pacific Bell. But many employers - unprepared to deal with the issue and confused about their rights - have hesitated in developing employee programs, and have chosen to deal with AIDS in other ways.

So far, the testing option appears to have been more disruptive than helpful for businesses. Testing for AIDS, says Michael Brown, a senior partner at the Boston law firm Goldstein & Manello, which specializes in employee-management issues, is one way to attract discrimination lawsuits.

Current methods for diagnosing the disease are not definitive. ``Nobody knows what to do with the findings,'' says a spokesman at Diagnostic Dimensions, the clinical laboratory of Hoffman-LaRoche, which is a leading AIDS tester.

This has kept most companies, and many states, from requiring testing, according to the Substance Abuse Report of Business Research Publications in New York. A few cities and states - such as California, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. - have even banned AIDS testing.

But some testing is being done, much to the chagrin of civil rights advocates. While there is no evidence, according to the Centers for Disease Control, that AIDS can be transmitted through casual contact, some employers say they need more proof. ``There's no evidence that it can't be'' transmitted through more casual contact, says Howard Matson at the Dallas-based Enserch Corporation, which now screens its food-service workers for AIDS along with other diseases believed contagious.

Critics fear that such programs can lead to discrimination by providing companies with information that will allow them to avoid hiring people who have AIDS or have tested positive for the AIDS virus. Many workers are concerned that they will suffer ill treatment by co-workers and dismissal by bosses.

But at Enserch, testing of employees is being ``done for their own good,'' Mr. Matson says. ``It's confidential,'' he stresses, adding that those who've contracted AIDS, and can no longer work, are sent home with full salary and benefits. Companies with only one or two workers falling into this category can afford to maintain such a policy. And this, he says, raises employee morale.

Still, some critics charge that companies are illegally testing blood samples that were taken from employees for other reasons. Others describe cases where employers screen out potential AIDS patients by asking whether or not they are married.

Because of the expense of treating AIDS, those who oppose testing suspect that some companies, aware of the expected cost of workers infected with the disease, will hesitate before taking on such a burden.

The large concentration of AIDS in San Francisco, for example, has resulted in relatively high employee absentee rates for companies based there. And because of past discrimination against AIDS patients by insurance companies, federal law now requires firms with more than 20 workers to offer employees group insurance rates for 18 months after they leave the company.

But if ``there is no labor agreement or local law prohibiting AIDS tests, private employers can do them,'' says Robert Angarola, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in drug testing.

Mr. Brown of Goldstein & Manello says companies should avoid this and should treat AIDS like any other disease that may be considered terminal.

So far, 21 states and several cities have done the same, ruling that AIDS is a handicap. While a recent Supreme Court decision (School Board of Nassau County v. Arline) involving the federal Rehabilitation Act did not mention AIDS specifically, says Brown, the case is likely to extend to AIDS.

For many companies, treating AIDS like ``any other life-threatening illness'' means providing information to all employees about the disease, encouraging open discussion, and establishing on-the-job health care, says a representative at HoffmanLaRoche, the pharmaceutical company.

Leading the way are Levi Strauss, BankAmerica, Pacific Telesis, and Wells Fargo in San Francisco and CBS, New York Life Insurance, and NYNEX in New York. A number of these companies were involved in putting together a videotape called ``An Epidemic of Fear.''

Levi Strauss, one of the first companies to develop an AIDS employee assistance program, confronts the AIDS issue during its regular ``brown bag'' employee lunches, says Joyce Bustinduy at the company's San Francisco office. ``Employees and management saw a need to get rid of unnecessary fear and prejudice.''

``Whenever there's an eruption [of fear of contagion], we have to talk to the employees, reassure them that it's not contagious in a normal work environment,'' says a doctor at Citicorp in New York.

In a decision this year that many medical and legal authorities consider overly intrusive, the Illinois Legislature passed 17 AIDS-related measures, including several that require physicians, hospitals, laboratories, blood centers, and other health care facilities to report the names of all carriers and to provide these names to school officials and employers.

``Co-workers want to know that they're safe,'' Dr. Emery notes. A big obstacle for companies to overcome, Brown says, is that a good many ``people still look at AIDS carriers as being [responsible for it because of] their unnatural life style.''

``If they can't get past the cause,'' they often can't get past their fear.

And unless the person with AIDS or the AIDS producing-virus poses a medically proven risk of infecting others, he or she cannot be fired. On the other hand, non-infected employees who refuse to work because of ``accumulated myths and fears'' about contagion can be fired, under the National Labor Relations Act.

``It's an emotional issue that isn't often easy to deal with,'' says Chip Yost, manager of public policy at Hoffman-LaRoche.

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