As the epidemic of HIV infection worsens and spreads, increasing numbers of workplaces, labour unions, employers and employees are being affected by the threat of HIV infection and AIDS (collectively to be termed HIV/AIDS). The effects are often particular and highly visible; they can also be insidious and somewhat hidden. Over the relatively brief lifetime of the HIV epidemic, the direct and indirect consequences of AIDS for the business sector and for the workplace in general (as distinguished from its health care aspect), remain for the most part a peripherally acknowledged component of the severity and magnitude of AIDS.
The attitudes and opinions of employees about AIDS are of pivotal importance, and must be assessed if a workplace programme is to be planned and managed effectively. Employee ignorance and misinformation can represent major obstacles to an educational programme, and if misjudged or handled poorly, can lead to distrust and disruption, and can aggravate already-prevalent biases and fears about AIDS.
In the United States, “AIDS has generated more individual lawsuits across a broad range of health issues than any other disease in history”, notes Lawrence Gostin of the HIV Litigation Project. A 1993 national survey of employee attitudes about AIDS by the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS reports that many working Americans continue to hold negative and potentially discriminatory attitudes toward HIV-infected co-workers, and the survey finds that most employees either don’t know how their employers would react to HIV- or AIDS-related situations in their workplaces, or they think that their employer would dismiss an employee with HIV infection at the first sign of illness. Discriminating against employees based solely on disability is expressly forbidden in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which includes under its protection people with HIV infection and AIDS. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers of more than 15 people to make “reasonable accommodations”, or adjustments in the job for their employees with disabilities, including HIV infection and AIDS.
For example, 32% of working Americans in the survey thought an employee with HIV infection would be fired or placed on disability leave at the first sign of illness. Clearly, if an employer moved to dismiss an employee with HIV infection solely on the basis of the diagnosis alone, that employer would be breaking the law. Such widespread employee ignorance of an employer’s legal responsibilities clearly makes employers—and by extension, their managers and employees—vulnerable to potentially costly discrimination lawsuits, work disruptions and employee morale and productivity problems.
Misperceptions about the epidemic can also fuel discriminatory attitudes and behaviour among managers and employees and can place an employer at risk. For example, 67% of workers surveyed thought that their colleagues would be uncomfortable working with someone with HIV infection. Left unchecked, such attitudes and the sorts of behaviour consistent with them can place an employer at considerable risk. Managers may erroneously assume that discriminatory treatment against those with HIV infection or AIDS, or those perceived as being infected, is acceptable.
HIV/AIDS Management Challenges
The medical, legal, financial, and workplace developments arising from the epidemic pose a host of challenges for people with HIV infection and AIDS, their families, their unions and their employers. Labour leaders, business executives, human resource professionals and front-line managers face increasingly complicated duties, including controlling costs, protecting the confidentiality of employees’ medical information and providing “reasonable accommodations” to their employees with HIV infection and AIDS, in addition to protecting people with HIV infection and AIDS and those perceived as having the illness from discrimination in hiring and promotion. People infected with HIV are remaining at work longer, so that employers need to plan how best to manage HIV-infected employees fairly and effectively over a longer period of time, and often with little or no training or guidance. Effectively managing employees with AIDS requires keeping abreast of emerging health care options, health insurance and health care costs, and legal and regulatory requirements, shaping effective “reasonable accommodations”, and managing concerns about confidentiality and privacy, discrimination issues, employee fears, harassment of infected workers, customer concerns, work disruptions, lawsuits, declines in worker productivity and morale—all the while maintaining a productive and profitable workplace and meeting business goals.
That is a large and somewhat complex set of expectations, a fact that underscores one of the essential needs in setting about to provide workplace education, namely, to start with managers and to train and motivate them to view AIDS in the workplace as part of long-term strategies and goals.
Amid the barrage of questions and concerns about the epidemic and how to manage its impact on the workplace, employers can take cost-effective steps to minimize risk, cut health care costs, protect their company’s future and, most important, save lives.
Step one: Establish a workplace HIV/AIDS policy
The first step toward effectively managing the workplace issues arising from the HIV epidemic is to put in place a sound workplace policy. Such a policy must set forth clearly the ways a business will deal with the host of complex but manageable challenges generated by HIV/AIDS. (“A sound workplace policy that accounts for an employer’s responsibilities to infected and affected workers will help keep a business from becoming a test case,” says Peter Petesch, a Washington, DC–based labour lawyer interested in the issue of AIDS and its workplace ramifications.)
Of course, a workplace policy itself will not remove the difficulties inherent in managing an employee with a fatal and often stigmatized illness. Nonetheless, a written workplace policy goes a long way towards preparing a company for its efforts to manage AIDS by minimizing risks and protecting its workforce. An effective written policy will include among its aims the need to
- Set a consistent internal standard for a company’s entire HIV/AIDS programme.
- Standardize a company’s position and communications about HIV/AIDS.
- Establish a precedent and standards for employee behaviour.
- Inform all employees where they can go for information and assistance.
- Instruct supervisors how to manage AIDS in their work groups.
Effective HIV/AIDS policies should cover and provide guidance on compliance with the law, nondiscrimination, confidentiality and privacy, safety, performance standards, reasonable accommodation, co-worker concerns and employee education. In order to be effective, a policy must be communicated to employees at every level of the company. Moreover, it is crucial to have the outspoken, highly visible support of upper-level management and executives, including the chief executive, in reinforcing the urgency and importance of the messages outlined above. Without this level of commitment, a policy that exists just “on paper” runs the risk of being simply a lion with no teeth.
There are two general approaches to developing HIV/AIDS policies:
- The life-threatening illness approach. Some employers choose to develop their HIV/AIDS policy as part of the continuum of all life-threatening illnesses or disabilities. These policies usually state that HIV/AIDS will be handled as are all other long-term illnesses—compassionately, sensibly and without discrimination.
- The HIV/AIDS-specific approach. This approach to policy development specifically acknowledges and addresses HIV/AIDS as a major health issue with potential impact on the workplace. In addition to the policy statement itself, this approach often includes an educational component asserting that HIV/AIDS is not transmitted through casual workplace contact, and that employees with HIV infection or AIDS do not pose a health risk to co-workers or customers.
Step two: Train managers and supervisors
Managers and supervisors should be thoroughly familiarized with the employer’s workplace HIV/AIDS policy guidelines. One should ensure that every level of management is supplied with clear and consistent guidance on the medical facts and the minimal risk of transmission in the general workplace. In countries with anti-discrimination laws, managers must also be thoroughly familiar with their requirements (e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act and its reasonable accommodation requirements, nondiscrimination, confidentiality and privacy, workplace safety and employee performance standards in the United States).
Also, all managers must be prepared to field questions and concerns from employees about HIV/AIDS and the workplace. Often the front-line managers are the first ones called on to provide information and referrals to other sources of information and to provide in-depth answers to employee questions about why they should be concerned about HIV infection and AIDS and about how they are expected to behave. Managers should be educated and prepared before employee education programmes are instituted.
Step three: Educate employees
Workplace-based education programmes are inexpensive and cost-effective ways to minimize risk, protect workers’ lives, save money on health care costs and save lives. MacAllister Booth, CEO of the Polaroid Corporation, recently said that the AIDS education and training for all Polaroid employees cost less than the treatment costs of one case of AIDS.
Workplace wellness programmes and health promotion are already an established part of the world of work for more and more workers, particularly among labour organizations and larger businesses. Campaigns to reduce medical costs and days missed due to preventable illnesses have focussed on the importance of stopping smoking and of exercising and following a healthier diet. Building on efforts to increase the safety of workplaces and the health of the workforce, workplace wellness programmes are already established as cost-effective and appropriate venues for health information for employees. HIV/AIDS education programmes can be integrated into these ongoing health promotion efforts.
Further, studies have shown that many employees trust their employers to provide accurate information about a broad range of topics, including health education. Working people are concerned about AIDS, many lack understanding of the medical and legal facts about the epidemic, and they want to learn more about it.
According to a study by the New York Business Group on Health (Barr, Waring and Warshaw 1991), employees generally have a positive opinion of employers who provide information about AIDS and—depending on the type of programme offered—found the employer to be a more credible source of information than either the media or the government. Further, according to the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS’ survey of working American’s attitudes about AIDS, 96% of employees who received AIDS education at work supported workplace-based HIV/AIDS education.
Ideally, attendance at employee education sessions should be mandatory, and the programme should last at least one and a half hours. The session should be conducted by a trained educator, and should present materials in an objective and nonjudgemental way. The programme should also allow for a question-and-answer period and provide referrals for confidential assistance. Initiatives taken with regard to AIDS in the workplace should be ongoing, not one-shot events, and are more effective when linked with such public acknowledgements of the importance of the problem as World AIDS Day observances. Finally, one of the most effective methods for discussing AIDS with employees is to invite a person living with HIV infection or AIDS to address the session. Hearing first-hand how someone lives and works with HIV infection or AIDS has been shown to have a positive impact on the effectiveness of the session.
A thorough workplace AIDS education programme should include a presentation of these matters:
- the medical facts— how HIV is and is not transmitted, emphasizing that it cannot be spread through casual contact and is virtually impossible to contract in the workplace
- the legal facts, including employer responsibilities, especially the importance of confidentiality and privacy and of providing reasonable accommodations
- the psychosocial issues, including how to respond to a co-worker with HIV/AIDS, and what it is like to live and work with HIV/AIDS
- guidelines on company policies, benefits and information
- information for employees to take home to their families to teach them how to protect themselves
- information on community resources and places to go for anonymous testing.
Studies caution that attitudes about AIDS can be negatively reinforced if an education or training session is too brief and not sufficiently thorough and interactive. Similarly, simply handing out a brochure has been shown to increase anxiety about AIDS. In a brief, cursory session, attendees have been found to absorb some of the facts, but to leave with unresolved anxieties about the transmission of HIV, anxieties which have, in fact, been aroused by the introduction of the subject. Thus it is important to allow sufficient time in a training session for in-depth discussion, questions and answers, and referrals to other sources of confidential information. Optimally, a training session should be compulsory because the stigma still associated with HIV infection and AIDS will prevent many from attending a voluntary session.
Some Union Responses to HIV/AIDS
Some leading examples of union HIV/AIDS education and policy initiatives include the following:
- The Seafarers International Union established an HIV/AIDS education programme as a mandatory component of the curriculum for merchant marine students at its Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Maryland. Individuals wishing to enter the industry may attend a 14-week training course at the school, and those already working in the industry attend no-cost classes to upgrade their skills and to obtain high-school equivalency diplomas or associate degrees. The Seafarers educational seminars about HIV/AIDS last two hours, and this comprehensive approach is based on the recognition that a thorough training is necessary to meet the needs of a workforce which travels abroad and operates in a self-contained environment. The HIV prevention course is part of a programme that covers employment practices, workplace health and safety, and the containment of health care costs. The education is supplemented by the showing of a variety of AIDS videotapes in the closed circuit television system in the Lundeberg school, publication of articles in the school newspaper and the distribution of brochures at Union Halls in each port. Free condoms are also made available.
- The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) became involved in AIDS-related activities in 1984 when fear of AIDS transmission first arose among its members working at San Francisco General Hospital. To assure that health care workers would be able to continue to provide compassionate care to their patients, it was critically important that irrational fear be confronted with factual information and that adequate safety precautions be implemented at the same time. This crisis led to the establishment of the SEIU’s AIDS Program, a model for peer-oriented efforts, in which members work with each other to resolve educational and emotional support needs. The programme includes monitoring infection control procedures in hospitals, responding to individual requests from union members to design and conduct AIDS training programmes and encouraging hospital management coordination with the SEIU on AIDS-related concerns.
- A significant benefit of the SEIU approach to HIV/AIDS has been the development of scientifically-based policies and member education programmes that demonstrate genuine concern for all involved in the epidemic, including the health care worker, the patient and the public. The union actively promotes AIDS awareness on the national and international levels at conferences and meetings, a focus which has positioned the SEIU at the forefront of educating newly arrived immigrant workers about HIV prevention and about workplace safety with respect to all blood-borne pathogens. This educational effort takes into account the primary or preferred languages and cultural differences among its target audience.
Although the unions and companies responding constructively to the day-to-day workplace challenges of HIV/AIDS are in the minority, many have provided the models and a growing body of knowledge that is readily available to help others effectively address HIV as a workplace concern. The insight and experience gained over the past ten years demonstrate that well-planned AIDS policies, workplace standards and practices, leadership and ongoing labour, management and employee education are effective methods for addressing these challenges.
As trade unionists, industry groups and business associations recognize the growing consequences of AIDS for their sectors, new groups are forming to address the particular relevance of AIDS to their interests. The Thai Business Coalition on AIDS was launched in 1993, and appears likely to stimulate similar developments in other Pacific Rim countries. Several business and trade groups in Central and Southern Africa are taking the initiative in providing workplace education, and similar undertakings have become visible in Brazil and in the Caribbean.
The World Development Report (1993) was devoted to “Investing in Health” and examined the interplay between human health, health policy and economic development. The report provided a number of examples of the threat which AIDS poses to development strategies and accomplishments. This report indicates that there is a growing opportunity to utilize the skills and resources of global finance and development, working in closer harmony with public health leaders around the world, to form more effective action plans for confronting the economic and business challenges stemming from AIDS (Hammer 1994).
Unions and employers find that implementing AIDS policies and employee education programmes before confronting a case of HIV helps reduce workplace disruptions, saves money by protecting the health of the workforce, averts costly legal battles, and prepares managers and employees to respond constructively to the challenges of AIDS in the workplace. The tools needed to manage the multiple and complex day-to-day issues associated with the disease are readily accessible and inexpensive. Finally, they can save lives and money.