AIDS in the Workplace: Balancing Employer and Employee Rights

Article excerpt

Introduction

In April 1981, the U.S. Center for Disease Control was informed that an individual had been diagnosed with a little known disease called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Since then, AIDS has claimed approximately 250,000 lives in the U.S. As of January 1995, there were 441,000 diagnosed cases and 1.5 million Americans infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). This infection will, given the current status of medical science, eventually lead to death [28,37]. Recently released data show that in 1993 HIV infection was the major cause of death among Americans 25 to 44 years old [15].

AIDS is spread only through contact with the bodily fluids of a carder. Some of the ways it can be contracted include sexual intercourse, sharing of needles by intravenous drug users, and mother-to-child transmission during childbirth or nursing. Before a reliable test was devised for screening blood donations, a common method of transmission was through a transfusion of infected blood [11]. AIDS has undoubtedly drastically changed the way many Americans live their lives, and it has had a social impact that goes far beyond its effect on the infected. Nearly two-thirds of those infected with AIDS are between the ages of 20 and 49. It is estimated that the disease is growing at the rate of three to five percent a year [2]. People with AIDS spend approximately 16 days a year in a hospital, and hospitals and drugs each cost approximately $1,000 a day [35]. It is obvious that AIDS will become a major concern for American businesses. Regardless of whether managers choose to confront the issues surrounding AIDS, it is certain that most businesses will have to face these issues. Businesses taking a proactive approach to the disease will be much better prepared to deal with the issues that emerge when its employees contract the virus.

The purpose of this article is to review problems of AIDS in the workplace and to offer some suggestions for coping with them. Employers must deal with the medical, psychological, performance, and legal issues of both victims and co-workers. Carefully implemented policies and procedures can assist all who are involved. The problems can be analyzed more systematically by dividing them into two categories: (1) those related to people infected with AIDS and (2) those related to the feelings of others about the disease and those who have it.

People Infected with AIDS

The first AIDS-related issue confronting most managers is absenteeism. Those with AIDS spend approximately 16 days a year in the hospital at an estimated cost of $1,000 per day plus an additional $1,000 a day for medicine, and many more days at home not well enough to come to work [35]. Furthermore, it is difficult for either an employer or employee to predict attendance or how many days an infected person will be absent. AIDS patients tend to experience periods of remission when they are fine and can function normally, and other times when they are too ill to function at all.

Another problem is what to do when it appears that an infected employee can no longer perform an assigned job adequately. The solution varies according to the job. When a job requires physical exertion, such as construction work or athletics, one is affected by the AIDS virus differently than when the job is more intellectual in nature. In some instances, an organization may be able to transfer a worker to another job which will accommodate his or her condition better, but still the worker with AIDS will eventually have to stop working [4,10]. Whether this degree of disability occurs just before death or at a midpoint in the illness, the employer must be prepared to assess an employee's performance and, in accordance with the law, decide when it is time for the employee to stop working.

Another important consideration concerns the psychological problems accompanying an illness of this nature [35]. A person diagnosed with AIDS will face severe psychological stress. …