LABOR

AIDS victims and the right to work

MALCOLM GRAY December 1 1986
LABOR

AIDS victims and the right to work

MALCOLM GRAY December 1 1986

AIDS victims and the right to work

LABOR

As a veteran flight attendant, Donald McCracken served meals and drinks to thousands of airline passengers. But in August, 1985, he took sick leave from the job he had held for 10 years. Nine months later McCracken, 29, died of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)—a disease that neither he nor his employer, Calgary-based Pacific Western Airlines Ltd. (PWA), realized that he had while he was working. Now, another PWA flight attendant, diagnosed as suffering from AIDS, is appealing a company decision last June to remove him from his job—even though one of the airline’s doctors had pronounced him fit for duty. Dianna Rienstra, a spokesman for the airline division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), said that overturning that ruling at an internal company hearing in Vancouver this week could set a precedent for service industry workers across Canada. Said Rienstra: “We do not believe that a company should have the right to remove someone from a job when he has been declared medically fit.”

For their part, PWA officials say that the employee—who has requested anonymity—is still on the payroll after 17 years of service with the company. Declared PWA spokesman Jack Lawless: “He is still on full benefits and full wages. The company is doing everything it can to assist the individual.” Still, the airline’s action reflects widespread concern about the risks of working with AIDS victims. There have been 764 cases of AIDS reported in Canada since doctors diagnosed the first case in 1979—and more than half of the victims have already died from the contagious, incurable disease. As a result, Quebec Solicitor General Gérard Latulippe had to reassure provincial prison guards and other employees last week that an unnamed AIDS victim who was still working in the provincial prison system was not a health threat. Added prison spokesman Richard Pelletier: “We took measures to ensure there is no risk to anyone. There is no reason for panic.”

Despite such assurances, many employees object to working with known AIDS victims. Declared Terry Champion, an Edmonton-based spokesman for 300 PWA pilots: “We do not believe that medical science knows enough about the AIDS virus to guarantee the safety of passengers and crew. No evidence has been presented to satisfy us that there

is no possibility AIDS can’t be transmitted in food or by casual contact.”

In response, union representatives have enlisted the support of medical experts, among them Dr. Hilary Wass, an AIDS specialist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. Said Wass: “As long as they don’t have sex with him or get a blood tranfusion from him, I would

say that the chances of somebody catching AIDS from their flight attendant are zero.”

But James St. James, a spokesman for the Toronto People With AIDS Coalition, said that workers who tell their employers that they have AIDS are likely to lose their jobs. According to St. James, one Toronto restaurant owner who discovered that one of his waiters had AIDS gave him $12,000 in severance pay—provided he quit his job immediately. Declared St. James, a 32-year-old actor who says that his

three-year-old case of AIDS is in remission: “Most of the people I know are either too sick or too ill to work. That’s why you may not hear too much about AIDS discrimination.”

Still, Robert Tivey, project director for AIDS Vancouver, a support group established in February, 1983, said that the hearing had implications much larger than one man’s right to work. And he suggested that, unless checked, job discrimination against potential AIDS victims could increase in the future as the disease spreads. Said Tivey: “You have to look at who might be next, say people suspected of having AIDS and anyone in a high-risk group. And the most common high-risk group is homosexual men.” Added Tivey: “The hearing could have an effect on virtually all service industries. Anyone working directly with the public—including waiters or hospital orderlies who are handling patients —could be affected.”

Meanwhile, other airlines, including Canadian Pacific Air Lines, are awaiting the outcome of the PWA hearing before determining their policies on employees who contract AIDS. But Air Canada spokesmen say that, although they are not aware that any current employees have AIDS, company regulations allow victims of the disease to continue working at their jobs—provided they are medically fit and pose no threat to the safety of passengers and fellow workers.

And in Rosemont, the small town in southern Ontario where Donald McCracken returned to die, his mother, Marion, maintains that her son car-

ried out his duties with no risk to the passengers he served. She added, “He loved his work and he would be sad to hear that this is happening.” But union officials say that they may take their case to the courts if PWA does not rescind its ban. That pledge alone guarantees that the controversial issue of AIDS victims’ right to work will not quickly disappear.

MALCOLM GRAY

MAKA LEIREN-HALL

MIRO CERNETIG