The Senate joined the House yesterday in proposing to permit employers to transfer workers with AIDS out of food-handling jobs, a controversial departure from sweeping anti-discrimination protections for the disabled that are nearing final approval in Congress.
Voting 53 to 40, the Senate first refused to kill -- and then approved by voice vote -- a proposal from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to instruct Senate conferees on the bill to agree to the food-handlers provision, which would require employers to make "reasonable accommodation" for alternative employment.
Legislation to guarantee employment, public access and other rights for disabled people has been approved by both houses, but only the House voted to permit job transfers for food-handlers who have communicable diseases, such as AIDS, even if the disease is not transmitted in foods.
Although the Senate occasionally instructs its members of a conference committee to insist on provisions the Senate has approved, officials said it is rare if not unprecedented for the Senate to insist on a provision approved only by the House. While the Senate vote puts pressure on conferees who will work out a final version of the legislation, the instructions are non-binding, and most of the conferees are understood to oppose it.
In a brief but impassioned debate over the provision, critics characterized it as a politically inspired concession to public fears about AIDS, even though, they said, all evidence indicates that the fatal disease cannot be transmitted through food.
What it does is "codify ignorance," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), floor manager for the bill.
"If Ryan White were still alive and he wanted to go down and work at Burger King, this legislation would say no," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in reference to the Indiana teenager who died recently after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion.
While medical evidence may show that AIDS cannot be transmitted by food handling, "try to tell that to John Q. Public," Helms said. For many restaurants who risk losing customers and who do not want to take any chances, "it's a matter of survival," he added.
"The reality is that people who have communicable diseases should not be working at the salad bar," said Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.). He said barring AIDS patients from handling food was comparable to barring the blind from the cockpits of airliners.