Earl C. Pike has a friend who does AIDS research and who happens to have AIDS himself. If he were driven from his job by the stigma of HIV disease, the world would lose valuable talent, Mr. Pike says.
And his friend would lose his reason to live: "When the world tells you you're not needed any more, that's when people start to get sick and die," he says.
Nevertheless, says Mr. Pike, the author of "We Are All Living with AIDS: How You Can Set Policies and Guidelines for the Workplace," American businesses have largely chosen to ignore the legal and ethical issues posed by the epidemic.
Increasingly, AIDS is affecting a work force in its prime productive years, says Mr. Pike, who is the AIDS and training coordinator for the chemical dependency program division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. What's more, medical advances have permitted those with AIDS to live longer, prolonging their presence at work.
And it's not just large companies that need to develop sensitive and practical policies for dealing with the effects of the epidemic. Small businesses, which employ about 60 percent of the nation's private-sector work force, are also feeling AIDS' human toll.
In a June 1993 report titled "HIV/AIDS: A Challenge for the Workplace," the National Commission on AIDS warned that the absence of policies and employee education programs "will impair the smooth running, productivity, and competitiveness of many businesses, especially small businesses."
Companies need to comply with the law, take measures to protect employee confidentiality, enact education programs or offer prevention techniques, Mr. Pike and other AIDS activists say.
Locally, some companies have established AIDS programs informally. Baltimore Goodwill Industries, for example, hires disabled employees, including those with AIDS or HIV, and offers training in universal precautions against infection.
Other AIDS awareness issues are discussed in regular staff meetings, and workers may refer to their employee assistance program for more information, says Jane Lamberger, a Goodwill program manager. But Goodwill, as of yet, has no formal AIDS policy, she says.
Nationally, corporations such as Levi Strauss, Western Union, Time Warner and IBM have instituted formal AIDS workplace strategies.
Those working to implement workplace AIDS policies and education programs are supported by the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which states that companies with more then 25 employees are liable if they discriminate against employees who have HIV or AIDS or if they fail to make "reasonable accommodation" for those individuals. People "perceived or regarded as having HIV," because they are part of a high-risk group, and family and associates of people with HIV, are also covered by the ADA.
President Clinton's recent mandate that employees at all federal agencies receive AIDS and HIV education has set an important example for the private sector, says Patrick May, director of communications for the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS.
Prior to the present administration, there was a "lack of visible leadership in the public sector. . .this attitude trickled down and affected all of the traditional venues for public education about health issues," Mr. May says.
Establishing a policy is meaningless without exploring the sensitive issues surrounding AIDS, says Mr. Pike. "Lots of what's been said about AIDS deals in a narrow band of legal issues," he says. "If you really want to deal with the HIV [crisis] in a way so that it couldn't happen again, you have to deal with underlying issues such as sexuality and homophobia."
Mr. May, of the National Leadership Coalition, offers some rules of thumb for employers coming to terms with AIDS. The first step is a sound policy, he says. It is also critical to "standardize the means and modes of communication about AIDS, set standards of employee behavior and consistency within the company, and inform all employees where they can go for assistance and information."
Employees must have access to information in privacy, Mr. May says. The fears and concerns of co-workers, as well as those with AIDS, must also be addressed, he says. "A policy is all good and well, but it doesn't address [the whispering that] goes on in the coffee break."
Those seeking information about establishing workplace AIDS policies and education programs may refer to several resources, including the following:
* The nonprofit National Leadership Coalition on AIDS was founded in 1987 to examine HIV-related workplace issues and has had a strong influence on state and national policies. (202) 452-8845.
* The Business Responds to AIDS Program, (BRTA), established last December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers $25 education kits for managers and labor leaders. It also has a resource center and reading room which handles up to 90 calls a day and operates out of the National AIDS Clearinghouse in Rockville. To contact the BRTA, call 1-800-5231-VOICE or 1-800-243-7012 (deaf access/TDD); or write to the BRTA Resource Service, P.O. Box 6003, Rockville, Md. 20849-6003.
* To order a copy of "We are All Living with AIDS: How You Can Set Policies and Guidelines for the Workplace," ($14.95) contact Deaconess Press at 1-800-544-8207.