When Injustice Becomes Law: An Analysis of HIV related workplace discrimination and harassment

Living with HIV/AIDS is a constant battle, there are ups and downs, goods days and bad days, and continual unexpected challenges which arise and make it difficult to carry on a “normal” life. The tremendous physical and medical forces which threaten the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS is enough to drive a person to the brink, yet surprisingly enough, many with the disease consider health to be one of the least influential factors in their determining overall wellbeing.

To those living with the disease, stigma, constant discrimination and being viewed as a societal outcast does more damage than the disease itself. The fact that our society so regularly criminalizes and stigmatizes HIV, worsens the lives of those already going through hell.

“When Injustice Becomes Law, Resistance Becomes Duty”

The workplace is one of the places where HIV discrimination rages at in fullest force. Our current national and state lead efforts to eliminate workplace discrimination are brutally insufficient and despite political efforts and policy action to prevent ostracizing, blatant discrimination continues to persist.

There are approximately 1.1 million individuals in the United States living with HIV/AIDS.  A study, performed by the National Working Positive Coalition, went out to seek information regarding HIV workplace inequality. At the beginning of the study, 84 percent of participants were employed at the time of their diagnosis. Over the time frame of the study, 81 percent of the respondents reported losing employment and of these 81 percent, 64 percent claimed that their HIV status played a formative role in the loss of their employment.

64 percent.

That is more than half who lost their jobs due to outright deliberate workplace discrimination, something which is “supposedly” deemed illegal.

These study participant do not stand alone in their experiences with HIV related workplace discrimination. Although there are a limited number of reported HIV discrimination cases in the media the fact that they exist is evidence that the issue not to be taken lightly. Cases include, the Scott Watts v. High Quality Lifestyles Ltd case, Michael Ashton v. Greater Manchester Fire Service case, Mark Hedley v. Aldi,case and Michael Scott v. Barker Stonehouse case.

Of these cases, Michael Scott v. Barker Stonehouse, embodies just how cruel and tolling HIV discrimination can become. In this court case, Scott was forced to wear surgical gloves and a boiler suit when her employers discovered she was HIV+. They stripped her of her dignity and did so in one of the most degrading ways possible.

Scott is just one name amongst a list which continues to grow, of individuals who have been wrongfully stripped of their rights to a fair and equal workplace. What makes the battle against HIV workplace discrimination so much more trifling is the complex variety of ways in which worker can be discriminated against.

There is direct discrimination, where an employer treats an HIV positive employee less favorable than others. Indirect discrimination, where conditions or rules in the workplace negatively influence HIV positive workers. Associative Discrimination, where a person suffers because of their association with another person who has an HIV diagnosis. Harassment, where offensive or intimidating behavior is targeted to make the workplace untenable. And lastly, victimization, which is unfair the treatment of HIV positive employee who has made a previous complaint about harassment in the workplace.

All the differing ways in which HIV workers can be discriminated against, poses challenges regarding effective preventative policy action. Currently, the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability, and HIV falls within that category. Not only is the ADA supposed to protect those living with HIV, but HIPPA and FMLA additionally aim to provide a work environment which is managing and sustainable for those living with HIV. President Obama, during his presidency, was additionally  a major advocate for HIV equality and commissioned the National HIV/AIDS strategy. This strategy worked to minimize employment discrimination by clearly outlining the ways to avoid indirect harmful discrimination.

Although President Obama led a force to improve and eliminate HIV discrimination, the process is nowhere near completion. Changing policies is only one aspect to challenging the attitudes projected towards those living with HIV. Policy action needs to be paired with advocacy campaigns whose objectives are to change wrongful misinterpretations surrounding disease transmission.

Despite the progress which Obama brought during his time in office, the barriers for equality in the workplace still remain an unresolved challenge. Even the current system of filing discrimination complaints in itself, continues to be discriminatory and biased. In order for employees to file a complaint they must go to the nearest Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Office (EEOC).

This process can be long, strenuous and challenging for those who do not have the ability to do research, take time off from work, and travel. A system which stiffens out low income and minority workers. Continuing the cycle of disproportionately silencing, Blacks, Latinos, Gays, Transsexuals, Women, and Bisexual men of all races.

While there has been great progress around workplace equality since the late 1990’s the growing conservative movement is surmounting to stand a threat to the small success which has already occurred due to of progressive movements. In our state of North Carolina, we have specifically been witness to the regressive policy changes of this nationwide conservative sweep.

HB2 is a prime example of the harmful impact conservative policies can leave on minority and marginalized members of society. This act makes the process of making discrimination claims and filing discrimination claims much more challenging. While there has been massive backlash against the bill, subsequent policy changes are struggling to make it off the ground.

Donald Trump, the newly elected U.S. president, solidifies the ideologies behind this growing conservative movements, and shows no signs to an end any time soon. This is a concerning reality for those living with HIV/AIDS or really any group who struggle to attain equality of any kind.

Zooming in on the discrimination HIV/AIDS workers face on a daily basis is just one look at the extensive discrimination of all kinds which affects all types of minorities in the workplace and beyond. Discrimination will continue to persist if complacency and acceptance of bigoted   policies isn’t challenged. Changes will only commence if those not afraid, decide to speak up and force local, state, and federal leaders to hear their cries of revolt.

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