Life at Work

On the Job With HIV

Jennifer Munthali helped write the HIV/AIDS policy at Catholic Relief Services, her employer.
Jennifer Munthali helped write the HIV/AIDS policy at Catholic Relief Services, her employer. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

Two weeks after she started to work at Catholic Relief Services in 2004, Jennifer Munthali decided to tell her boss that she was HIV positive.

"I barely knew my supervisor," said Munthali, who was the program manager for AIDS relief in Zambia. "It was indeed a scary time. Even though I was at a higher management level, I was afraid I was going to lose my job."

Her manager handled the news well. But neither he nor Munthali was sure what CRS's policy was on HIV treatment. She didn't know if her insurance at the Baltimore organization would cover her. And she didn't know what policy -- if any -- CRS had on HIV and AIDS treatment and support.

Munthali and her managers were in a situation they share with many other employers and employees. The approaches and attitudes toward HIV and AIDS, particularly in the workplace, are still complex. Many managers don't know what, if any, accommodations are available to HIV-positive employees. Others might simply handle the news poorly because there is still a stigma attached to AIDS.

"Earlier there was lot of hysteria, ignorance and panicked reactions, and sometimes that still happens today," said Peter J. Petesch, managing partner with law firm Ford & Harrison in the District and a board member for the Business Responds to AIDS program of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Even with companies that have sort of attached policies where AIDS and HIV are mainstreamed with other chronic and catastrophic illnesses, there is still a lot of wisdom in providing employer and manager education."

CRS is a relief and development agency that works in 99 countries. As part of its mission, it helps people who are HIV positive. But CRS had only a thin, outdated policy from 2001 in place for its employees.

A lot has changed since then in the approach to the HIV/AIDS, Munthali said. "We were at the point where the church was. I think the Catholic church has done a great job in taking care of the sick and showing compassion for the poorest of the poor. But in doing that, the programs were for caring for people while they were sick, but not helping people get tested and get treatment to stay alive."

Munthali's revelation of her HIV status led other CRS employees to share theirs. And her experience, challenges and concerns were used in writing the organization's new policy, which she and others worked on for a year.

CRS's program has been in place for 10 months. It includes training for all employees about HIV and AIDS, information for managers and employees about what CRS can do for its employees who are HIV positive, and 100 percent coverage of all treatment and testing for the virus. In many cases, CRS's insurance hadn't helped workers in foreign countries. Not all countries take insurance. And overseas, the rate of HIV-infection is much higher, so insurance companies might not include all treatment in their policies, Munthali said.

The new program also created mandatory HIV training for all employees at least once a year, in addition to complete coverage for testing and treatment for all of its employees. CRS hopes the coverage will encourage its 5,000 employees to get tested and get treatment. Its home state, Maryland, is in the top 10 for HIV prevalence.

"We started to recognize as an agency that the same stigma and access to treatment issues are actually affecting our own staff," said Munthali, 36. "Here we were saving people in the community but losing our own staff to HIV."

Munthali was infected in 2000 when she was working for another nongovernmental organization in Zimbabwe. She didn't know of her HIV status until she moved to Malawi to start working on an HIV program. Her flu-like symptoms went undiagnosed until she requested an HIV test. "I definitely think my own experience helps me to do my job. I understand what people are feeling, and I'm able to share my experience with them," she said.

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