It may well be a legal matter, but so far, the law is giving little help to companies worrying about how to treat employes with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
"The area is so new that there is yet to be any guidance for employers by any decision rendered by any court or administrative agency," said Philadelphia labor lawyer Laurance E. Baccini.
He cited only two jurisdictions -- the city of Los Angeles and the state of Wisconsin -- that have passed laws specifically banning AIDS-based discrimination, but noted that an array of other legal claims can be leveled by victims who feel they have been dealt with unfairly.
These options range from invoking labor laws to suing for slander.
Until the legal situation gets clarified, "employers act at their peril when they discharge employes or otherwise discriminate against them based upon the fact that they have contracted AIDS," Baccini warned.
Few firms want to be the ones that make new law in this touchy area. For instance, William Runyon sued Cutter Laboratories and the Minnesota Plasma Center two years ago when he was fired from his job drawing blood from donors -- a firing that followed the diagnosis that Runyon had AIDS. In little more than a month, the defendants had worked out an agreement under which Runyon got a cash settlement, continuing disability benefits and continuing medical benefits, in return for dropping the litigation.
The only thing that is atypical about that case is that it got into court. Business Week magazine said that, "Typically, companies pay medical costs, but insist that the patient stop work" -- an informal deal that never shows up in any public records. It is not an inexpensive promise on the part of employers: Research Institute of America reports that total medical outlays for treating a single case of AIDS are often around $140,000 -- and it may not be covered by existing health insurance policies.
One case, against the National Institutes of Health, charged "humiliation, embarrassment and damaged reputations" because the agency allegedly told an employe to get clearance before letting a friend meet her in the building for lunch, because the friend was suspected of having AIDS.
What makes AIDS such a dilemma for personnel executives, of course, is that widespread fear of the new, untreatable disease results in pressures from unaffected employes for harsh measures against the victims -- and for testing of new hires to find persons who have been exposed to the virus.
The Center for Disease Control insists a case never has been reported in which the condition was spread by casual contact. The Nov. 15 guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services on workplace precautions against AIDS said flatly, "The kind of nonsexual person-to-person contact that generally occurs among workers and clients or consumers in the workplace does not pose a risk for transmission."
But many persons simply refuse to believe such assurances. The research institute reported, for instance, that employes whose jobs involve using video-display terminals worry about sweat that an AIDS victim might have left on the keyboard.
Those fears may, in fact, strengthen the cases of AIDS victims who want to go to court to keep their jobs, because the current laws banning discrimination against the handicapped -- which cover companies selling to the government and any organization that gets federal grants -- protect those who are perceived to be impaired. The more evidence that the public looks at AIDS as debilitating, even at a time in the course of the disease when the victim is physically able to work, the stronger the protection.
With the controversy as unfocused as it is, it may take a long time for the courts to give company executives much useful advice on this problem. Right now, the experts are advising caution and compassion, although just how to balance those goals is not clear.