It was time for the watchdog to watch itself.
There had already been several cases of AIDS in the General Accounting Office; the place was afloat in fear and misinformation. The dismay affected even those who were supposed to investigate the problem at GAO, Congress' watchdog over the executive branch.
"We hoped maybe it would go away. We didn't want to deal with it and were despondent for months when it looked like we would have to," said Eleanor Chelimsky, chairwoman of the General Accounting Office task force on AIDS in the workplace.
She thought the issue would be tough, with great tension between protecting the health of other GAO workers and supporting those who were ill because of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. She dragged her feet, but finally took on the issue.
She was wrong, she said. The issue was not hard.
The turning point was the moment GAO task force members read the surgeon general's report on AIDS and its medical message began to come through. "There was just not the tension we thought there would be over protecting workers . . . . There is no casual contact that can spread the disease. Workers were not in jeopardy. As soon as we grasped that, everything got an awful lot easier for us," she said.
A consensus quickly followed, then a study and report laying down the facts.
Now, GAO has a firm, active policy on how to handle AIDS in the workplace that is apparently the only one of its kind in the federal government. It may not have been too hard to earn that distinction, however, because there is no governmentwide policy on the topic and few government agencies have taken on the issue directly.
"There is next to nothing going on in the federal agencies," even at the U.S. Public Health Service, said Jeff Levi, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "This is in line with what is happening in the private sector as well."
In a recent poll of high-level corporate executives, it was found that 70 percent reported that their companies have no AIDS policy and do not plan to have one. Only one in 10 has a written policy.
The task force last year interviewed officials at 10 federal agencies and private businesses with some policy to find out what they had done. The interviews were disappointing, as no organization had any "innovative" plans for education, prevention or counseling.
In the case of the federal agencies, Chelimsky said, "We found some agencies testing for the virus, but that was about it. There wasn't much interest in anything beyond that."
The GAO employs about 5,100 people, with 2,500 of them in Washington. Five cases of AIDS have come to light in the organization.
"There was one case in Washington in which a worker died. All his coworkers were terrified to go near the office he was in. People refused to clean it out," Chelimsky said.
But when the workers were given the surgeon general's report and had a chance to discuss it, "the problem was over in no time," she said.
The ignorance of the basic facts about AIDS was not confined to workers; managers and the authors of the task force report all had misconceptions. "We were all worried about AIDS. One woman PhD asked about what we were going to do about food service workers. She and the rest of us had trouble dissociating AIDS from all the other diseases that can be passed more easily," Chelimsky said.
The policy the GAO came up with includes several key points:Being AIDS-free is not required before hiring or for continued employment.
An employee's health condition is private and confidential. An employee with AIDS is under no obligation to disclose his or her condition to a supervisor or any other GAO staff member.
Efforts to help an employee ill with AIDS should be the same as the efforts to help those sick with other life-threatening diseases.