Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is front-page news. One cannot pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without reading or hearing about this dramatic disease which is suddenly among us. There is a sense of powerlessness attached to this phenomenon -- Americans have conquered space -- how can we not find the vaccine to fight this virus?
As the emotional temperatures rise and the number of AIDS victims increases, the workplace is an arena that will have to deal with this subject very soon.
In certain situations where employes work directly with AIDS victims, such as hospitals, there have been sporadic efforts to develop guidelines. But what about the mainstream workplace? More than 100 million Americans are employed, and it is the employer and the employe in each workplace who will have to come to grips with this issue.
Bank of America and Levi-Strauss are two companies that already have developed policies. Suggested guidelines for the workplace have been published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and the American Management Association.
Although there are legal questions and problems with health insurance benefits, I believe that the main problem will be psychological as employers and employes begin to grapple with the fact that some fellow workers have AIDS.
Employers should start now to anticipate the problems that will cause and not wait for the first employe with AIDS to be identified. Employers should educate their employes to the facts as we know them now: AIDS is not communicable except through sexual activity or contaminated needles of intravenous drug abusers.
The employer's policies need to be clearly explained to employes so they know how they are expected to act when AIDS turns up.
An employer should not wait for the crisis. The more good solid education that takes place before a crisis, the better the opportunity to influence attitudes.
In any event, I believe many companies have a resource to help that they may not be aware of. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) exist in many companies today. Originally started as occupational alcoholism programs, EAPs have broadened to become professional counseling services for employes with a variety of emotional as well as addiction problems.
Many of these programs, whether contracted or in-house, are staffed by professionally trained mental health persons such as psychologists and social workers. These counselors can become valuable resources to companies as they try to deal with the problems surrounding AIDS policy.
Companies should call upon their EAPs for assistance in designing an AIDS policy. They should also expect them to help allay employes' fears as company philosophy and policy is being developed. The EAP could become a calming voice as reactions and over-reactions set in when the first employe victim is identified.
Mental health professionals, especially social workers, have traditionally worked in hospitals to provide support for terminally ill persons, and that experience makes them particularly well-suited to work with AIDS victims and their families. Their professional objectivity enables them to operate as an advocate for the AIDS victim while maintaining a perspective that allows them to remain sensitive to the anxieties of the coworkers who find themselves working closely with AIDS victims.
EAP personnel have been trained to work with community resources and are knowledgeable regarding those services. They will be able to assist in making contact with the appropriate community programs that employes with AIDS, and their families, may require. Counseling from the EAP will give them the help they need as they continue working every day and have to deal with other employes, supervisors and the workplace in general.
Family members as well as victims will experience denial, upset, bewilderment, even shame, and they will need assistance as they face their own loss and try to cope with helping their sick loved one.
The EAP can also help companies in the interpretation and implementation of legislation pertinent to victims of AIDS. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which declared persons with certain illnesses to be handicapped, may be extended specifically to apply to AIDS victims. The EAP staff is already familiar with this law as it pertains to victims of other handicapping conditions, and will be an invaluable aid in understanding its ramifications for employes who have AIDS as issues concerning their disability benefits and termination on medical grounds become apparent.
While employers are concerned about their employes as a whole, in this situation, they are faced with the needs of various groups of employes, each of which must be addressed, including: employes with AIDS; employes who have family members with AIDS; and employes who would be working alongside a coworker with AIDS.
One would hope that as management tries to develop a fair and humane approach that this would be a subject area that unions view as cooperative, and that the traditional labor/management confrontational stance be put aside. This is the time for all sides in the workplace to come together, as in the society as a whole. The issue is bigger than individual concerns.