Conference to help employers tackle

issues related to AIDS in work force

Employers increasingly are finding it necessary to make it their business to learn how to deal with HIV and AIDS in the workplace.

Tom Anthony, a 39-year-old living with AIDS, for example says his former employer, a retail chain store in Houston, threatened to fire him in June of 1993 if he didn't elaborate on a doctor's excuse exempting him from work and provide a good reason for his excessive absences during two previous months. The Pasadena resident had been diagnosed with AIDS only three months earlier and was having a rough time deciding whether he should tell his company about his illness.

"It finally got to the point where my employers said 'We are not holding this job open for you if you don't tell us,' " Anthony said. "I had to tell them because if they had terminated me, I would have lost my insurance and not been eligible for disability benefits."

As people live and work longer with HIV and AIDS and return to work after disability thanks to greatly improved medications and treatments, a growing number of employers must tackle issues such as confidentiality, the provision of reasonable accommodations, discrimination and the development of disability policies.

"Many businesses still wonder how to respond to an employee who has divulged an HIV-positive status or have a hard time figuring out exactly what is a reasonable accom-modation," said Glenda Gardner, chief, Bureau of HIV/STD Prevention at the Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS).

To help supervisors, employees and benefits programs manage the demands imposed by the disease, HDHHS will sponsor the Mayor's AIDS in the Workplace Conference on October 25 from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Rice Hotel, 909 Texas. The free event will target chief executive officers, professionals in the fields of human resources, community affairs and employee assistance programs, medical directors and business and labor employees.

The goal of the conference is to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS as workplace issues and help businesses develop comprehensive workplace HIV and AIDS education programs. Businesses will be encouraged to develop workplace policies on HIV and AIDS and establish collaborations with community based organizations.

Eighty-nine percent of the 18,310 AIDS cases in Houston and Harris County reported to HDHHS since 1981 were diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 49, a core segment of the work force. Also, 87 percent of the new cases of adult HIV infection reported to HDHHS between January 1999 and June 2000 were diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 49.

The rate of HIV infection in Houston's African-American community reached a crisis level in 1999, spurring Mayor Lee Brown to declare a state of emergency. That year, 61 percent of the newly reported HIV infections in Houston were in the black population. The latest epidemiological reports reveal the black population accounts for 59 percent of the new HIV infections.

Jennifer Smith, a public information specialist with the Bureau of HIV/STD Prevention, said that supportive steps employers can take when employees reveal a positive HIV status include thanking workers for sharing the information, assuring confidentiality and letting them know the company will provide reasonable accommodations. The American with Disabilities Act offers recommendations on what is considered reasonable accommodations and which co-workers require notification of an employee's positive HIV status.

Some employers unnecessarily fear lawsuits and the issues that AIDS brings to the workplace. Smith said businesses can avoid a majority of that apprehension by adopting or modifying some of the numerous policies and AIDS awareness programs already in existence and developed as resources for businesses by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Most circumstances can be turned into win-win situations," Smith said. "There are a lot of good employees with HIV who want to work and stay in the work force. Working together may be as simple as allowing a couple more breaks a day to take medications."

Anthony left work on disability soon after divulging to his former employer that he had AIDS, but he returned to the work force almost two years ago when he landed a job as AIDS Project administrator with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, an organization which helps people with HIV or AIDS with issues related to wills and estate planning. He now openly discuses his illness with everyone and encourages others who are HIV positive or have AIDS to divulge such information to their employers to avoid workplace problems, especially if they suspect issues will arise.

"If you have any doubts that there will be any hassle or conflict, my advice would be to disclose in writing," Anthony said. "You can't say that they (supervisors) have fired you because you are HIV positive if you have never officially told them."