Positive Environment

As workers with AIDS remain on the job or return, employers scramble to react.

When Paul Hummel left his job as a part-time freight handler at Federal Express three years ago, no one expected he'd be back. Respiratory problems, diarrhea, fatigue, and other ailments related to an immune system battered by HIV had left the Minneapolis resident exhausted and depressed. The company granted him 12 weeks temporary leave, then put him on permanent leave but continued his health insurance. On his last day at work, his supervisor took him aside. She made him a promise, Hummel says. "Don't worry," she said. "You'll always have your job here."

Hummel's health rapidly disintegrated, and by January 1996, when his boss came to visit, death seemed imminent. Nobody could have predicted that three months later, after starting treatments that included a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors, Hummel would see his T-cell count rise and feel his energy return. Eager to get back to work, he would contact his boss that spring, hoping to remind her of her promise.

But his boss didn't return his phone calls, Hummel says, and when he showed up at her office door, she went white. Eventually, she told him to show up for work, he alleges, only to turn around and cancel the start date. This happened repeatedly until March of this year, Hummel says, when he received a letter informing him that his leave had expired and his position would be terminated if he didn't reapply for employment. Hadn't he been doing just that? Frantic, he called his boss -- again to no avail. Then, in August, he received a letter of termination.

"They thought I was going to die," Hummel says. "But I didn't die, and now they've fumbled the ball."

Hummel's tale illustrates the confusion and occasional panic that has gripped American businesses, as they struggle to react to HIV/AIDS as a workplace issue. Protease inhibitors, AZT, and other successful drug therapies have transformed AIDS, in many cases, from a certain death sentence into a long-term treatable illness. A decade ago, few people living with AIDS rarely remained at work. Today, according to one estimate, 90 percent of workers diagnosed with HIV keep their jobs. And employers have noticed: A 1996 Centers for Disease Control survey of 2,200 businesses found that one in six large worksites and one in 15 small worksites reported having had an employee with HIV/AIDS.

As those workers stay on the job or return to work, corporate administrators are increasingly faced with situations that require not only compassion, but policies. An HIV-positive individual on a strict drug regimen may require frequent breaks during the workday to take medications; flex-time is another accommodation often made for persons with HIV. Both may require special dispensation from company rules.

Under the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, employers are required to handle HIV-related illness like any other disability. As such, individuals with HIV/AIDS cannot be discriminated against in matters of employment. Employers must provide "reasonable" accommodation to persons who meet the legal definition of having a disability, but the individuals must be able to do the work. For example, if an HIV-positive machinist is unable to do her work without falling asleep because she's taking medications, the company may remove her from that job. She could harm herself or other employees, the company might argue. If such action is taken, however, the company is expected to make every "reasonable" accommodation for the employee, which may include finding the employee a comparable position. She may be given a desk job or transferred to another position that isn't hazardous.

Many of the accommodations requested by workers with AIDS are already available to employees in progressive workplaces. "Policies aren't different for AIDS issues because they all come under flexible work arrangements," says Sharon Klun, who manages the work/life program at American Express Financial Advisors in Minneapolis. Whether it's providing laptops so employees can work at home or new part-time work arrangements for those who want to cut back on their hours, many companies provide accommodations for workers with and without disabilities. Klun says accommodating workers with HIV has benefits for both the company and the employee. "For years, we have encouraged people [living with AIDS] to work and be as productive as possible," she says, "because we thought it was in that person's best interest as well."

But companies' legal obligations go only so far under the ADA provisions. If an accommodation poses an "undue hardship" -- if it's determined to be too costly or disruptive, or alters the nature of business operation -- an employer can obtain an exemption.

Also ADA rules don't cover every type of situation. Although Fed Ex continued Hummel's medical benefits after he left the company, the business was not obligated to do so, says Hummel's attorney, Joni Thome. The company also wasn't obligated to find work for him, she adds. "They could have said they didn't have a job," says Thome. "But they didn't." And that's key to Hummel's situation: When the company backed out of its promise to rehire Hummel, Thome says, it made a mistake. She says Hummel has since filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that Federal Express reneged on several offers of employment to him during a 10-month period, causing undue stress.

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