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Why Returning to Work After Battling AIDS Carries Special Baggage

June 1, 1998
Related Topics: Employee Leave, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Health and Wellness, Featured Article
Battling and beating any life-threatening illness is a tremendous accomplishment. However, those people who have stared down AIDS and won often have additional demons to battle. AIDS carries with it a certain stigma that other illnesses don’t carry, making it much more difficult for people who’ve fought AIDS, and lived to tell about it, to return to work.

Cornelius Baker is executive director of the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) based in Washington, D.C., whose mission is to advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS. Baker explains: Suppose a prospective employer asks an applicant about a three-year gap in employment history. A person with cancer might reply with a story of chemotherapy and radiation, spending time with family during what were thought to be the remaining months, and preparing to die. The candidate would describe unexpectedly recovering from the illness, re-engaging in life, setting new priorities and finally wanting to return to work. Most HR people would see that as saying something about character. In many workplaces, the agency would plan time for the person to work back in.

Baker doubts that in many workplaces, the scenario would play out the same way for a person returning to work from an AIDS-related disability. His doubt arises from the experience of his organization’s members and from the following issues:

  • While the cancer patient is likely to be seen as a hero, the returning person with HIV or AIDS may re-introduce troubling issues to a workforce.
  • Neither cancer nor heart disease arouses fear of contagion among co-workers.
  • Most co-workers wouldn’t respond to news of other diagnoses with the intrusive, moralistic question, "How did you get it?"
  • Most people aren’t afraid to provide first aid to someone with cancer or heart disease.
  • Co-workers are unlikely to refuse to share work spaces or equipment with a person returning from another illness, yet those refusals still occur with HIV/AIDS, even in 1998.
Baker stresses that "once [a person with HIV] enters a workforce, we have to be as competitive as others. People with HIV don’t get any special breaks. But we don’t expect any special disregard either." He defines "special disregard" as being viewed as a threat to others. "Special disregard" is an especially daunting prospect for someone who seeks to reclaim a full life after facing death, and sees how warmly others returning from their own private medical agonies are welcomed.

Employers can improve the chances for success of a person returning to work with HIV/AIDS by making sure that co-workers understand that HIV/AIDS doesn’t threaten anyone else’s health. Improve the chances even more by giving everyone returning to work with HIV/AIDS an informed mentor or support person who will ease the transition.

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, p. 108.

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