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July 10, 2001
Firms Growing Lax on HIV, AIDS Policies
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t as the country as a whole has grown complacent about HIV and AIDS, employers have gotten slipshod about ensuring fair employment for the afflicted, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Problems persist even in San Francisco, where an estimated one in 50 residents is HIV-positive. Yong Lee, contract compliance officer of the city's Human Rights Commission, recounted that in one recent case he handled, an AIDS organization was unwilling to hire HIV-positive workers.

In another, a law firm denied reasonable accommodations to a fatigued HIV-positive employee.

"There's still quite a stigma," Lee told the Times. "Some people come right out and say, 'We don't want to work with someone who's HIV-[positive].' "

Nancy Breuer, partner at the Positive Workplace consulting firm in West Hollywood, and Kandy Ferree, president and chief executive of the National AIDS Fund in Washington, both noted a decline in employer requests for HIV and AIDS education programs.

"There's a general impression that the crisis is over, that AIDS is declining, so the workplace doesn't have to confront the problem anymore," Breuer said. But, if anything, the converse may be true.

Though AIDS-related death rates are declining, new-infection rates are rising again, the Times reports. Cases now total about 40,000 annually.

HIV and AIDS primarily affect Americans of working age. New drug therapies have enabled more than 200,000 HIV-positive Americans to retain their jobs longer, or to return to work after protracted health-related absences. But not everyone on the therapies will remain healthy on the job. About 25 percent won't respond to the new drugs, according to the National AIDS Fund.

Others will find the therapies lose their efficacy over time or cause debilitating side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, and nerve damage, Breuer said. Employers of such individuals need to be well-versed about their legal obligations, the Times said.

They also must be sure their employees are educated about HIV/AIDS transmission to counter irrational fears.

Three years ago, a National AIDS Fund survey showed that 63 percent of Americans said they would be uncomfortable working with someone who was HIV-positive. Twenty-one percent added that they believed the HIV-positive employee should be fired or put on disability at the first sign of illness.

Such phobias and misconceptions aren't always harmless, the Times noted. They can lead to discriminatory actions, harassment and, lawsuits.

AIDS education specialists report that many U.S. workers still believe they can become infected by being coughed or sneezed on by a person with AIDS, or by sharing a telephone or drinking fountain with an HIV-positive co-worker.

"I've done presentations in front of really upscale, highly educated groups, and I'm still getting asked, 'Can you get it from a toilet seat?'" said Philip Curtis, a representative of AIDS Project Los Angeles.

What to do

Employers can reduce the likelihood of HIV and AIDS prejudice and discrimination in their workplaces by instituting education programs for supervisors and other employees, Breuer said.

"There are managers who don't know how to manage someone with a stigmatized disability whose health is worsening," she said.

In addition, employers can hold seminars about AIDS transmission and prevention, outline standards of behavior for managers and workers, and host employee meetings about their anti-discrimination policy and confidentiality requirements.

Ferree, of the National AIDS Fund, worries that the growing apathy on the part of some U.S. employers about HIV- and AIDS-related workplace issues might continue.

"There's really a resistance right now," she told the Times. "It's off their radar screen. The reaction is, 'Been there, done that; we developed our policy years ago.' It's troubling."

To view the Los Angeles Times article, click here
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