Positive Environment

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

Lynn Mickelsen, legal program coordinator for the Minnesota AIDS Project, which provides clients with legal information, advice, and referrals, as well as pro bono matches with volunteer lawyers, says she's beginning to see a shift in the legal needs of Minnesotans with HIV. Concerns about estate planning and financial debt have been eclipsed by employment and disability issues, she says.

Still, HIV-positive individuals returning to work must consider the tradeoff. Pre-existing condition clauses and waiting periods for new enrollees can make switching insurance a nightmare. Roxanne White, who tested positive for HIV two years ago, currently receives Medical Assistance from the state. Getting a job, the Twin Cities resident says, would bring in more money than she currently earns as a public speaker on the topic of women and HIV, but it could also affect her ability to pay for her prescriptions while she waits for the insurance to kick in.

And White has other reservations about going back to work: Would she have to disclose her HIV status? Would she be able to handle the long hours? What about the stress?

Instead the Ojibwe native decided to launch her own business. She plans to enlist the help of other Native American women living with AIDS and start a sewing circle, designing and assembling ceremonial dance regalia. "I really want to work," White says, "so I decided to create my own job. That way, on days when I'm fatigued or having a reaction to my meds, I don't have to worry."

Other Twin Cities workers with HIV have found that supervisors and coworkers have bent over backwards to accommodate them, providing ample time for medical appointments and even arranging stop-gap insurance coverage. David, an HIV-positive Minneapolis man who asked that his real name not be used for this article, says his colleagues were more than accommodating when he became extremely sick in July 1996 while working at a large law firm. "I had cryptosporidiosis, which is usually found in bad drinking water, and for people with HIV, it's extremely deadly," David recalls. "My doctor told me I had four months to live."

David's coworkers already knew he had HIV. His boss sent him home to rest while his coworkers picked up the slack. Two office mates chipped in to buy him a massage certificate. And when cash-poor David heard about an expensive drug effective in treating cryptosporidiosis, but available only on a limited basis, another colleague handed David his credit card. "I'm convinced that's why I'm alive today," David says.

When several of David's colleagues broke away from the firm to form their own partnership, David was invited along. His future boss researched health-insurance plans and arranged a smooth transition: David received full coverage immediately. "I'm very grateful," he says. "I feel my employer has always done more than what they needed to do. It's not what you expect from corporate America."

Still, David admits, he's never had to take a long-term leave of absence from work, a circumstance that can hamstring small employers. At a previous job, he had to cover for an employee with AIDS who left and never returned to work. "I know the frustration the employer feels. You can only offer someone a position for so long before that position has to be filled."

Hummel, meanwhile, isn't sure if he'll ever get another position at Federal Express. He says he's financially strapped and emotionally spent. He recently finished a class in Website design at the Minneapolis Rehabilitation Center, but a lack of employment history over the past few years has made it difficult to find a job, he says. "I've been done wrong," he says, "and it's only getting harder."

The EEOC, which could clear the way for a court hearing or a settlement, isn't expected to begin investigating Hummel's complaint until after the first of the year.

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