Working with Aids the Disease Puts Some Employees, Employers in Conflict

Article excerpt

MIKE IS a St. Louis factory worker who was losing time on the job because he has AIDS. When he began taking more time off work, his employer suspended him without pay. Mike turned around and filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

He's back at work now but says the conflict with his employer has made him "a basket case." And stress, his doctors have told him, is one thing he should avoid if he is to maintain his immune system.

Mike's travail in some ways mirrors the real-life version of Hollywood's first blockbuster movie about AIDS. "Philadelphia" is about a lawyer dismissed from his firm after the partners learn he has AIDS. Tom Hanks plays the lawyer with AIDS; Denzel Washington is the homophobic lawyer who winds up defending Hanks. The film, which opens in St. Louis today, is based on a true story.

But Mike's life, his anxieties and his dispute with the factory are more complicated and far less glamorous than the Hollywood version. No moody soundtrack backs Mike's confrontations; no camera records his every move.

Mike's sole income is his factory pay. Without the job he would have no health insurance. "I feel that the stress of this situation is making it impossible for me to continue with my life," says Mike, who, like several others interviewed for this story, asked that his real name not be used.

Prudence Brungard's life isn't much like the movie either. But in her case, a caring employer and supportive colleagues helped alleviate the stress, which allowed her to function at work productively for as long as she physically could.

Brungard, 39, worked as the clinical research nurse in the obstetrics-gynecology department at Jewish Hospital until two years ago, when the fatigue caused by AIDS started to catch up with her.

After an evaluation in 1991 showed that her employers felt her job performance was slipping, Brungard decided it was time to tell them she had AIDS.

"They were extremely supportive," she said. "Extremely. They made a lot of accommodations for me."

Given both Mike's and Brungard's varying experiences, what's the real picture concerning AIDS and the workplace here? Hard to say precisely. Figures from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that only eight discrimination cases were filed in Missouri and 12 in Illinois from July 1992 to Oct. 31, 1993, the period for which records have been kept. But that could be misleading.

Most people with AIDS either lack the energy for protracted legal battles over employment discrimination or value their confidentiality more than the result a lawsuit might bring, says Genevieve Mosblech, a legal intern on the AIDS Project at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

"Most people who have AIDS are concerned with day-to-day things," she said. "They're concerned with eating, with getting to the doctor, with taking medication. If you're a healthy person who is in your job . . . you're a lot more likely to vigorously pursue discrimination."

Lawyer Charles A. Seigel III handled two of the most publicized AIDS discrimination cases in the area. In one, a bill collector told the parents of a man with AIDS that their son had the disease. In the other, a man alleged that an insurance-claims adjuster improperly told his employer that the man was HIV positive.

While Seigel says he doesn't have data to support his contention, experience tells him that employers don't always treat workers with AIDS fairly.

"I think there's a lot of discrimination that goes on because I think there's a lot of fear of HIV and a lot of homophobia," he said. "There's a lot of lip service to sensitivity, but when you get right down to it, people are on guard, and people are treated differently."

Tom Blumenthal is a lawyer who usually represents the employer in discrimination cases. His spin on the situation differs slightly from Seigel's. …