WASHINGTON — Executives from leading U. S. corporations, saying that "the potential impact of AIDS on corporate America no longer can be ignored," Wednesday urged the nation's business community to deal with AIDS just as it would any other catastrophic illness.
"An approach which treats AIDS like any other disease and shows compassion for the person with AIDS is not only the right policy but is also legally required," said a report released by a coalition of corporate executives, meeting here at a forum sponsored by the Allstate Insurance Co.
Although federal and other public health officials have issued similar guidelines on dealing with AIDS in the workplace, this was believed to be the first definitive statement from a large representation of corporate America. Allstate brought together officials from about 200 top U. S. companies to discuss and write the recommendations released Wednesday.
The non-binding guidelines, which are intended to serve as a resource for American businesses, also urge that companies refuse to transfer co-workers who fear contracting AIDS from fellow workers and said that employees should not be required to undergo testing for AIDS infection.
Further, they suggested that each company establish an in-house task force on AIDS and begin company education programs. "Companies must remain current in terms of information and in terms of their response to the emerging facts," the report said. "As the problem of AIDS evolves, so should a company's program."
In addition, it said: "Information is the best weapon available to control the spread of (AIDS) and reduce irrational fears." The guidelines also stressed that companies should sponsor community education programs as well and protect the privacy of employees with AIDS.
"As a society, we simply cannot afford--emotionally or economically--to give in to AIDS," said H. E. Lister, chairman of the board of the Allstate Life Insurance Co. "We have to fight it at every turn, with every weapon at our disposal. And corporations have every legitimate reason to be out front leading the charge."
Not a 'Quantum Leap'
Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen, addressing a forum sponsored by Allstate, told employers: "Many of you have already instituted programs to persuade your employees to stop smoking, to eat properly, to exercise more regularly, to drink moderately or not at all and to avoid drugs. To add to this persuasion on the wisdom of avoiding AIDS isn't such a quantum leap."
The coalition also released a national survey of U. S. companies on their attitudes toward AIDS and found that only 1 in 5 has developed a written policy to deal with employees who have the disease.
Tom Stoddard, executive director of Lamda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which handles lawsuits involving AIDS discrimination, praised Allstate's initiative in bringing together business leaders to address AIDS issues.
Ahead on Workplace Issues
However, he said: "Most companies are still trying to look the other way, taking a deep breath with the hope that AIDS won't touch them. The insurance companies, ironically, already know better. While I disagree with their policies on insurance, they have been ahead of most other segments of the business community on workplace issues."
Most insurance companies have sought to use the test for AIDS infection to determine coverage for individual health policies, which has met with strong opposition from homosexual rights and other organizations.
The coalition's survey, co-sponsored by Fortune magazine, questioned top officials from 623 U. S. companies and found that executives ranked AIDS third among the largest problems facing the country today, after the federal deficit and drug abuse.
Other Findings by Survey
The study also found that:
--Larger companies tend to have more supportive policies than smaller companies.
--Companies in the service sector are more supportive than companies in the industrial sector, "undoubtedly because of their already greater experience with employees with AIDS."
--Fifty percent of the companies said they believe that an image problem would result if the public were to find out that somebody in the company had AIDS.
--Eighty-four percent said they would require employees to contribute more to the cost of company medical insurance programs if the cost of premiums rose significantly as a result of AIDS.
--A prospective employee's chances for employment would be "uncertain" if he or she were found to be infected with the AIDS virus.
--Fifty-seven percent of the companies surveyed said that if a co-worker refused to work alongside an employee with AIDS, they would try to change the co-worker's mind.
Vulnerable to Infections
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the individual's immune system, making that person vulnerable to otherwise rare infections. It is spread through sexual intercourse, through the sharing of contaminated hypodermic needles, and by mother to fetus during pregnancy.
In this country, it has primarily afflicted homosexual and bisexual males, intravenous drug abusers, and their sexual partners. More than 50,000 Americans have contracted AIDS, and more than half of them have died.