AIDS Education in the Workplace : Health: More and more employers, such as Lawrence Welk resort, are finding it advisable to inform their employees.


Sylvester (Pork) Horman balked when he found out his employer was holding an educational seminar on AIDS Tuesday.

As director of security at Lawrence Welk resort, Horman supervises a security force in which the oldest guard is 85 and the average age is 73.

"I just didn't know if it pertained," said Horman, 61.

But, after the 90-minute seminar, Hormon conceded, "I'm glad I attended; I've got a 14-year-old granddaughter who confides in me, and this is something to think about."

More and more employers see a need to educate their workers about AIDS, say county health officials and AIDS activists. And, as the number of cases continues to climb, reaching 3,501 in San Diego County, employers have begun to realize that fear of AIDS can cause problems in the workplace.

"Clearly, there is a need for education," said Dr. Michele Ginsberg, chief of the county health department's AIDS and epidemiology division. "I think many companies are taking steps."

One Nordstrom cosmetician said she was afraid that her job put her at risk for contracting AIDS because--try as she might--she sometimes came into contact with customers' tears as she primped their eyes. At a small law firm, two employees quit when they learned that a co-worker had AIDS.

At Lawrence Welk, one waiter who had AIDS used to come and visit his co-workers after he was too weak to tend tables. After he had eaten a bowl of soup and departed, his colleagues would throw out the spoon he'd used.

"Basically, we just realized that no one is exempt from this topic," said Nena Gutierrez, director of human resources at the resort, which employs 500. "AIDS is not going away. We, as employers, need to take responsibility. Would people go to this seminar if it were offered at their church or community center? No."

In San Diego, the AIDS Foundation and one of its former employees, Bill Donnelly, offer seminars that cater to the workplace. They spell out what the disease is (a virus), how it's transmitted (through sexual intercourse, use of contaminated needles, transfusion of contaminated blood products or to babies born to infected mothers), who's at risk, and how it can be avoided.

Five months ago, Donnelly started up his own for-profit educational company, the only one of its kind in the state. So far, Nordstrom department stores in Orange County and Lawrence Welk resort have been his two biggest clients, paying $100 to $300 per seminar.

"It's one of those things people don't usually talk about in the workplace or don't talk about enough. Everybody needs it. Period," said Delena Williams, human resources and personnel director for the Orange County Nordstrom stores, which has paid Donnelly about $14,000 for his seminars.

Donnelly, she said, "made people feel no matter what the question, it wasn't dumb, and people weren't intimidated."

Donnelly arrived Tuesday at Lawrence Welk conservatively clad in a blue sports jacket, white shirt, gray slacks and a maroon tie.

He conducts his seminar in a calm, efficient manner as professional as his attire. And yet he touches upon topics--for example, anal and oral sex--rarely discussed in most work environments.

"This virus is not casually spread--you are going to hear me say that 100 times," Donnelly told 35 resort employees, who included waitresses, cashiers, security guards, and maintenance workers.

"Any form of intercourse--whether oral, anal, or vaginal--is high-risk without a condom," he said, in a no-bones-about-it voice. "I don't care who you are or who you are doing it with--it's high risk."

Donnelly gauges his success by the amount of eye contact and questions at the end of his talk. On Tuesday, there were plenty of questions.

"What if Magic Johnson were to collide with another player and they both got cut? Would the other player be at risk for AIDS?"

ANSWER: Magic Johnson can play basketball. The risk for another player is minimal--he could only contract the disease if Johnson's blood dripped into an open wound on the other player.

"What if a child with AIDS bit another child?"

ANSWER: This is also an unlikely scenario. Children with AIDS are usually well-schooled about the hazards they pose to others. The virus is contained in the body's fluids such as blood, semen and vaginal fluid. There is very little of the virus present in saliva. Parents should tell children not to perform any acts like being blood brothers or blood sisters.

"How many people are out there and are angry and are going to rape women or molest children?"

ANSWER: This can happen.

When the topic veers toward children, many in the audience lean forward.

"The rate of children being sexually active in high school is 60%," Donnelly tells the group. "We know our kids are going to be sexually active. We need to give them the tools to protect themselves. Our kids who are 10 now will be dealing with this when they are 18."

For Alison Yates, who works in the resort's accounting department, the reality is a painful one. Yates' 4-year-old daughter recently asked: "Mommy, what is AIDS?"

Yates found that her eyes suddenly filled with tears. Her throat tightened and she couldn't speak. "It was so sad that she would ask that," Yates said.

Donnelly advised her and other parents to talk about sex with their children. The older the kids, the more information they should have, he said.

"Start with really young kids and tell them what sexuality is all about--it's vitally important," he said.

For Yates, the seminar was a wake-up call. She started thinking about how to talk to her daughter as well as her 16-year-old niece about AIDS. And then she started wondering about herself.

"Gosh, you almost leave thinking you need an HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) test," said Yates, who's in the process of a divorce after 10 years of marriage.

Adriene Wilson, the resort's restaurant manager, found that the seminar helped her quash some of her fear about how the fatal disease could be transmitted.

Without saying anything, she watched four years ago as one of the resort's waiters--Kenny--began to get thinner and thinner. Kenny had worked at the resort for 11 years and, like most of the people on her staff, he was a good friend. Soon Kenny began asking for more and more time off to go to the doctor. Then he got pneumonia, a common affliction among AIDS patients.

Suddenly, the word was out: Kenny had AIDS.

"At that time, I was not knowledgeable," said Wilson, who cried as she remembered the waiter.

Wilson stayed by Kenny until his death. He was always welcome to visit. But she also understood when his co-workers would worry about whether their cars had become contaminated after they'd given him rides to the hospital. And she never scolded anyone when they tossed away rather than washed the utensils with which Kenny had eaten.

"Everybody has those little fears," Wilson said. "I just think the more you learn about things, the more your fears go away."

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