Fighting ignorance, group educates workers about HIV

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October 20, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: April Wooster
April Wooster

In 2001, local AIDS activists were shocked that most workers thought HIV could be caught through a sneeze. So they created a workplace program to enlighten.

Believe it or not, a 2001 poll of 625 Minnesota voters revealed that 52 percent did not know if HIV could be transmitted through a cough or sneeze.

Forty seven percent were uncertain they would feel comfortable working near an HIV-positive coworker; and 68 percent were unsure if employers should keep private a fellow employee's HIV status.

These percentages shocked the MN AIDS Project (MAP), the statewide nonprofit based Downtown that commissioned the poll. As a result, MAP has worked even harder with business owners to educate them and their employees about HIV through its Wise @ Work program. This summer, MAP started marketing the program beyond the large corporations it currently serves, focusing on small and minority-owned businesses.

MAP's HIV/AIDS poll noted that Greater-Minnesota residents were less certain than metro residents about HIV's potential risks. Metro residents were also more comfortable with the idea of working alongside someone who has HIV.

Intrigued by the geographical distinction, Skyway News stopped 20 adults walking down Hennepin Avenue one Thursday afternoon and asked them the same questions MAP's 2001 survey asked.

MAP's 2003 survey revealed that 65 percent of Minnesotans were certain that HIV cannot be contracted by drinking from a glass used by a person who has the disease. Skyway's survey showed 85 percent, or 17 people, with the same response. All 20 Skyway poll-takers said they did not believe HIV could be transmitted through a cough or sneeze. Seventeen respondents, or 85 percent, said they would not feel uncomfortable working in the same office or area as a co-worker with HIV. Twelve people polled said they disagreed that an employer has the responsibility to tell them if a co-worker has HIV; six were uncertain. In the polled group, 16 either live or work Downtown, and 13 work Downtown. Fifteen respondents, or 75 percent, said they had received information about HIV at their place of employment.

(Note: several people refused to answer our questions, perhaps because they were reluctant to discuss HIV-related topics. It's possible their answers, if given, would have driven down the percentages.)

Using Wise @ Work Several Downtown businesses such as American Express, Wells Fargo and Target have already utilized Wise @ Work's free resources. Wise @ Work now offers five brochures with tips for employers on how to deal with HIV-positive employees, basic information about HIV and ways to talk about the disease with co-workers, family and friends. Wise @ Work also provides legal advice on fair employment practices, workplace seminars on HIV and direct help for employees with HIV.

"Misconceptions about HIV can lead to a lot of fear," said Doug Flateau, a MAP workplace services representative. He likened people's reaction to HIV to that of this year's SARS outbreak in China. "People think HIV is transmitted more easily than it is. We want to address that fear and explain how HIV is and is not transmitted. Employees also need to know how important it is to keep someone's medical information quiet."

The most common questions Flateau gets asked are from employees with HIV wondering if or how they should disclose their status and from business owners requesting advice on how to handle a situation wherein an HIV-positive employee is revealed. During seminars, he has also found people interested in how to start talking with their families about HIV.

More people than ever live and work with HIV, as death rates slow with the advent of improved medications. An estimated 4,598 Minnesotans live with HIV or AIDS, a 6 percent increase from 2001, according to 2002 reports from the Minnesota Health Department. Roughly 88 percent of them are residents of the seven-county Twin Cities area, and 78 percent of HIV/AIDS carriers are 35 years or older.

Wise @ Work wants to get into the communities where HIV infection is predominant or growing.

"Most of the new statistics show it's among African Americans, gay or bi[-sexual] men, African American women and new cases of African-born Minnesotans," Flateau said. "We want to get in those business strips and areas where those populations are, and educate employees and hopefully their communities, so the epidemic goes down."

White men made up 53 percent of new HIV infections in 2002. Men of color composed 45 percent of new male infections in 2002, and women of color made up 84 percent of new female infections, even though their population numbers are much lower than the white population.

Foreign-born Minnesota residents, particularly those from Africa, have suffered a ten-fold increase in HIV/AIDS numbers. Fifty foreign-born cases in 1990 grew to 550 cases in 2002. Twenty-one percent of new HIV infections in 2002 struck African-born persons.

In early July, Wise @ Work sent out direct mail pieces about its program to 1,000 businesses identified through the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Uptown Association and the Cedar-Riverside Business Association. As a result, business leaders from a hotel, dental office, a bar and UPS have requested everything from further updates on HIV to on-site training.

A second wave of mailings went out Aug. 12 to other businesses found through the 50th and France Business Association, the Midway Chamber of Commerce, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the Twin Cities Quorum. Wise @ Work staff will continue to build relationships with neighborhood organizations and chambers of commerce to find businesses in which the highest concentrations of HIV infections are located.

Wells Fargo employees have participated in the MN AIDS Walk for a number of years, forming an official team in 1999 that boasts well over 150 participants and hosts presentations on the disease each year. Wise @ Work conducted formal HIV education seminars in March and April for Wells Fargo employees.

"Those seminars have been requested again for those who weren't able to make it," said Adam Krueger, a Wells Fargo employee who also serves on Pride Minnesota, the company's employee resource group. "They're professionally done and provide up- to-date information about HIV relevant to Minnesota. They help eliminate the fears people may have."

Wise @ Work is funded in part by the Minnesota Department of Economic Security, Vocational Rehabilitation Program. As part of an AIDS service organization that gets into the workplace through established relationships with MN AIDS Walk-participating businesses, Wise @ Work is unique compared to other HIV workplace education programs. It's a model the Centers for Disease Control is thinking could be implemented in other cities across the country, Flateau said. He was asked to talk about the program at a CDC-sponsored conference in San Diego at the end of September.

"What we're doing is pretty unique," Flateau said.