Youth Consultation Services (YCS), a New Jersey agency, employs 1,400 counselors and outreach workers who address the health needs of local youngsters. So you’d think they’d be pretty hip to HIV in the workplace, right? Well, the company isn’t taking any chances. Every month, it marches employees into a conference room for an intense four-hour workshop. Today’s group is mapping a time line of the epidemic while learning about HIV discrimination and prevention. Since YCS doesn’t offer clients any HIV programs per se, the group wants to ensure that its employees, at least, treat any positive colleagues, whether they’ve disclosed or not, with sensitivity. (It wants to avoid costly workplace litigation too.) “Everyone needs to have the basic facts and be sensitive to issues surrounding HIV,” says Jodi Riccardi, manager of Hyacinth AIDS Services, which offers the sessions free to YCS.
As living with HIV becomes easier for many and as more positive people return to the workplace, companies are raising in-house AIDS awareness. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Business Responds to AIDS/Labor Responds to AIDS (www.hivatwork.com) program, more than half of the nation’s 121 million workers are in the largest age risk group for HIV: people between the ages of 25 and 44. What’s more, 46% of waged and salaried workers are parents, which means that any education they receive can trickle down to kids.
Workplace discrimination has many faces. There are the blatant forms that make headlines, but also the far more common ignorant or stigmatizing comments that can slip out during lunch or happy hour. “We remind people that 25% of people [who are infected] don’t know they have HIV,” says Paula Toynton of Hyacinth. “[The workshops] weave it all together for people, telling them you can’t go on assumptions.”
These seminars aren’t exactly new. The diamond industry giant De Beers, based in AIDS-ravaged South Africa, was a mid-’80s pioneer, launching programs to protect its employees, many of whom were becoming infected and dying. In the U.S., Levi Strauss & Co. was one of the first companies to set up a workplace HIV policy, incorporating an education session for new employees and creating materials to help employees talk to their families about the virus.
The task is harder for small companies—which, with fewer resources and fewer workers to worry about, might be less motivated to act. Yet there are more than 23 million small businesses in this country, and their total employment rolls constitute a pivotal chunk of the American workforce. In South Africa, where small businesses employ about half of all private sector employees, the South African Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS recently announced plans to encourage larger companies to require small firms to adopt HIV initiatives before they will do business with them. Regardless of the size or field, all companies need to realize their potential role as a resource for raising AIDS awareness among their employees. And to let their positive workers know that their well-being and comfort in the workplace are a priority. “It’s my responsibility to make sure that the employees are educated about HIV,” says Yvonne Montemurro, a human resources director at YCS. “They need to know how important [it is] to treat everyone the same.” Now, back to work.