It's a question that no employer wants to face, one for which the "right answer" does not come easily, one that even the toughest AIDS educator doesn't relish:
Question: "Why is this company keeping on its payroll perverts, drug addicts, and other immoral people, in violation of everything that religion and America stand for?"
But there is an answer to this question, one of about 20 raised in a manual that soon will be mailed to administrators at more than 10,000 California companies.
The answer, contained in "Facilitating AIDS Education in the Work Environment," is more obvious than it seems:
"This company is not taking a stand one way or the other on these 'moral' issues," suggests the manual, prepared by a group of Orange County companies for distribution by October. "The company is saying that if one of our employees, to whom we have some responsibility as employers, comes down with a disease that is not a threat to anyone in the workplace, we will treat that disease the same way we would treat any other disease."
The 64-page manual, which was designed to educate employers and employees on AIDS issues in the workplace, was the product of six months of work by business leaders from 20 companies. Its authors created it to quell the fears of employees and teach employers about in-house education programs and company policies regarding AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Although AIDS can be transmitted only through the exchange of body fluids and use of unsterilized needles, misinformation about the disease abounds, and many fear that it can be contracted through casual contact with clients and colleagues in the workplace.
So the theme of the manual is simple and repeated throughout: "Employers and employees alike need to understand that, while AIDS is a very serious disease, there is no risk of contracting or transmitting AIDS in the work environment, and normal working relationships can be maintained without fear of catching the virus," said Harry G. Bubb, chairman of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., which is underwriting the project.
As of Wednesday, the Orange County Department of Health had reported 525 cases of AIDS in the county, with 324 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recorded 41,825 cases nationwide as of Monday, with 24,070 deaths, while the California Department of Health Services reported 9,589 cases statewide as of Aug. 31, with 5,182 deaths.
"AIDS is going to affect you one way or another," said Geno Effler, a Pacific Mutual spokesman. "What happens if a client has AIDS, a vendor has AIDS? Are you going to stop buying from that vendor, stop paying attention to that valuable client?"
Pacific Mutual has invested $70,000 in the manual and drawn on the experience of 20 other firms participating in the Orange County Business Leadership Task Force on AIDS and Alcohol & Drug Abuse to make sure the answer to that question will be a firm "no."
The manual, which will be distributed by Oct. 1 free of charge through business associations throughout the state, contains sections on local resources in each of California's 58 counties, model educational programs and facts about AIDS.
In addition, the book provides exhaustive answers to 20 commonly asked questions about AIDS. The most common, the manual says, is this:
Q: "Saliva, sweat and tears--why can't AIDS be transmitted that way?"
A: " . . . While it is theoretically possible for AIDS transmission to occur this way, it has never happened and the odds are astronomically against it ever happening. . . . "
Although state health authorities say that few such manuals are available to employers--especially at no cost--the San Francisco AIDS Foundation is distributing a $398 employee education package including books and a videotape.
The concept is new enough that most of the companies participating in the Orange County project don't even have their own policies for dealing with employees who have AIDS.
"We don't have one," said Carol Summo, administrative manager at VitaTech International Inc. of Tustin, a consortium member. "We could create one, but we are not actively creating it right now. But I do plan on using the manual in our business when I get one."