When a worker gets AIDS: education is the key to preventing employee panic and fear

Sam B. Puckett


IN OCTOBER OF 1986, nearly 30 fearful and disgruntled employees of New England Bell walked off the job en masse (with camer crews from the local television station there to record the event) when they discovered that one of their coworkers had AIDS.

Epidemics have almost always sparked irrationality, superstition and the search for scapegoats. AIDS, unfortunately, has been no exception. Many workers react to news of coworker’s infection wit panic, anger and cruelty. “There is something about the topic of AIDS that can cause otherwise intelligent and rational people to lose their basic common sense,” says Pat Christen of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Contrary to workers’ worst fears, public-health officials, including the National Academy Sciences, the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), assure us that AIDS is spread only by sexual intercourse and blood, not by sharing telephones or equipment, by sneezing or coughing or by just working with someone. As a result, widely accepted guidelines issued by CDC say that people diagnosed with the disease may continue on the job without endangering their coworkers.

Despite evidence and assurances, however, in the heat of the moment, unprepared and frightened employees may not listen to the facts, often because management is not prepared to present them effectively. “AIDS panic can be an awkward, empared management,” advises psychologist and management consultant Alan Emery of San Francisco.

The CDC estimates that between one and one and a half million Americans have already been infected by the AIDS virus. And more than a quarter million people will be diagnosed as having AIDS sometime in the next four years, according to the U.S. Public Health Service. These growing numbers suggest that eventually nearly all of us will have to deal with someone in our organization who has AIDS, a man or woman covered by our company’s health insurance and disability programs.

To help contain employee panic and fear, the U.S. Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, recommends that employers “have a plan in operation for the education of the work force before the first case of AIDS appears.” Nancy Merritt, vice president and in-house AIDS expert for the San Francisco-based Bank of America, agrees: “It is important to be prepared. A panic situation is not the best time to begin learning about AIDS.”

Many concerned employers are now setting up contingency plans and task forces to handle AIDS on the job. Educational programs vary from company to company. Bank to America provides information about AIDS in its employee newsletter. Pacific Bell Telephone, California’s largest employer, produced an educational videotape for employees in cooperation with six other local companies. Wells Fargo Bank sponsors brown-bag lunch session with guest medical speakers. Levi Strauss’s chief executive officer helped pass out AIDS literature in the atrium of the corporate headquarters. Pacific Gas and Electric provides counseling for concerned coworkers through employee-assistance programs. Morrison & Foerster, a major multicity law firm, provides free lunch and guest speakers on AIDS for its entire 800-person staff.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce now promotes a model AIDS policy statement for use by employers. The statement asserts that employees with AIDS are not a threat to their coworkers and should be guaranteed the right to continue working, with complete confidentiality. It encourages compassion toward workers with AIDS and employee education before the first case of AIDS strikes. Various organizations, including United Airlines, the American Red Cross and AT&T, have expressed interest in the policy.

“The AIDS epidemic is prompting an unusual degree of cooperation and sharing of information and educational resources among private-sector groups,” according to health-policy analyst Pat Franks, who coordinates the national AIDS Resource Program in San Francisco. For example, Wells fargo and Bank of America, traditional rivals in the financial arena, have helped each other, as well as other organizations, cope with the AIDS crisis.

West Coast companies are clearly setting the pace for employer responses to this issue. But Eastern organizations–Westinghouse Electric, Time Inc., The Washington Business Group on Health and The Equal Employment Advisory Council, for example–are also leading the way toward dealing with AIDS calmly, as one would with cancer or any other life-threatening illness.

“Managers should be prepared in advance; key people need to understand how AIDS is and is not transmitted, how the disease can or cannot legitimately have an impact on the job site. Knowledgeable managers within organization need to be on call to help calmly resolve any workplace crisis that might develop,” advises Mervyn Silverman, a public-health physician and president of the American Foundation for AIDS Research in Los Angeles and New York.

With this type of planning. AIDS can be effectively handled at work. Employers will generally find that employees are increasingly interested and concerned about AIDS and ultimately appreciate the information, which they often pass on to their children.

The association of AIDS with sex and drugs can initially present awkward moments for both management and employees. Superiors are often very uncomfortable speaking openly with subordinates about sex; employees may seem equally unwilling to listen. The subject of homosexuality can be particularly disturbing for heterosexual men who have received a lifetime of strong negative conditioning about the topic.

According to Jackson Peyton of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, who started working to educate corporations about AIDS four years ago, “Female managers, feeling less personally threatened by the media’s identification of AIDS with homosexuality, are frequently able to cope more comfortably with the AIDS issue at work than are their male counterparts. Much of the best corporate policy and educational program development about AIDS may help change their habits, reducing their risk of contracting AIDS. From a company’s perspective, this not only decreases time and productivity lost with a sick employee but also helps avoid astronomical medical-insurance costs.

“This is the first major fatal epidemic since employer-paid health-insurance plans became a routine feature of American working life,” points out Philip Lee, director of the University of California’s Institute for Health Policy Studies. “AIDS is expensive. It is also preventable. Employees and their dependents need information about how to avoid AIDS when they are off the job, and employers have a strong economic interest in seeing that the information is made available.”

This corporate interest extends beyond employees to their families. Since millions of adolescents are covered under their parents’ health-insurance plans, the increasing number of AIDS cases among teenagers has caused growing concern among corporate-benefits managers. Economic self-interest will ultimately stimulate more extensive employer involvement in AIDS prevention in the coming years.

With no vacine or cure in sight, AIDS will become more prevalent throughout the workplace, from the assembly line to the executive suite. Employers who face their discomfort about discussing sex and drugs and who plan a rational response to AIDS in advance are likely to avoid the far more traumatic and embarrassing experience of trying to calm a work force stampeding for the exits in retreat from a real or imagined case of AIDS on the job.

Concern in the bedroom may remain an aspect of the AIDS epidemic for years to come; panic in the workplace is unnecessary and avoidable.

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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