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Work Force Diversity : Fond Farewells : Companies and Colleagues Are Helping the Seriously Ill Work and Die With Dignity

Times Staff Writer

Life in the time of AIDS, cancer and other diseases has created a new reality in the office: workers who are very ill, perhaps life-threateningly so, but who want to work as long as possible, both for the money and a sense of self-worth.

As a result, an increasing number of employers, as well as their employees, are developing ways to help their colleagues work and die with dignity. In some places, workers are donating vacation time for their seriously ill co-workers to use for medical leave. In others, employers are providing additional benefits for the seriously ill, including early access to life insurance, AIDS-specific health services that employees can tap anonymously, streamlined access to 401(k) retirement programs and, perhaps most basic, some simple understanding and job flexibility.

Hollywood studios, whose work forces have been hit hard by AIDS, have been at the forefront of this benefits examination, said Mike Powers, an associate with the Los Angeles office of William M. Mercer Inc., a benefits consulting firm. But the steady supply of life-threatening illnesses in the population means no industry is immune.

In 1991, Bill Tassi was a prosecutor in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, battling crime and cancer at the same time. The 38-year-old lawyer had exhausted his vacation and sick leave, and he faced long-term disability without city-paid medical benefits.

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Still, Tassi wanted to work and feel involved at the office, so his fellow lawyers made that possible. They formed a “vacation bank” by donating vacation days to a pool administered by a committee of lawyers within the office. Tassi, and others after him, drew from the pool as needed. Similar vacation banks have since been established for other city employees.

“It was a relief,” said Susanna Iritani Tassi, whose husband died in October, 1991. “He didn’t have to worry about what would happen next.” But perhaps more important, she added, was what the vacation bank--which immediately swelled to more than 750 donated hours, or roughly 94 days’ worth of vacation time--said about Tassi’s value to his co-workers.

“It was the biggest present, the most tangible way of showing that they supported Bill,” Tassi said. “It was so life-affirming.”

Such heartwarming stories are hardly universal. Horror stories of workplace hysteria and hardheartedness can be heard at any hospice.

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But one thing is clear: Employers who fire or discriminate against workers with terminal illnesses violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1992 law that bars discrimination against the disabled--and terminal illness is considered a disability--in employment, public services and other areas.

“ADA is making employers look at disabilities differently than they have in the past,” Powers said. “I’m seeing more companies in a exploratory stage right now . . . examining what happens to employees in life-threatening situations.”

The federal law, he said, is certainly part of the motivation, but many companies see death-related issues as new territory for their human resource departments.

According to a study last year by Towers, Perrin, Forster & Crosby, a management consulting firm, time-off pools were in place at only 13 of 162, or 9%, of major employers surveyed. Another five were considering starting one.

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Still, flexible time-off policies, including the use of sick days for the care of sick dependents, werehighly valued by employees, even if only a small fraction used them, the study showed. Further, most companies reported that starting these programs costs little.

Some companies are moving toward creating a “living benefit” that allows sick employees to receive a portion of their life insurance while they are alive to help with medical and living expenses, Powers said.

Fox Inc., the entertainment company, has been credited with being innovative in its benefits for seriously ill employees, including providing a separate employee assistance program for workers with AIDS. The employee calls a toll-free number and can receive anonymously a variety of services from counseling to hospice care, said Lynn Franzoi, Fox vice president of benefits.

Other benefits provided by Fox include:

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* Full medical coverage for five years after full-time disability begins.

* Access to a portion of the employee’s life insurance.

* Allowing employees to borrow from their 401(k) retirement plans, thereby avoiding income taxes. (The IRS allows disabled taxpayers to make early withdrawals without penalty from their 401(k) accounts, but income taxes are still due on any withdrawn amounts.)

* Six months of sick leave at full salary and benefits after only one year of service.

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Illness at Work: First Step Is Education

How should employers handle fatal illnesses, including AIDS, in the office?

The first step is educating your employees to create a non-discriminatory atmosphere in the workplace, said Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, an AIDS education group that is tackling workplace issues in the entertainment industry.

“Many companies think, ‘We haven’t had a case of it yet and we don’t have to worry about it,’ ” Jennings said. But when rumors begin circulating that an employee is HIV-positive, “what often happens in the workplace is people panic. . . . An educated workplace is the first line of defense.”

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Other suggestions:

* Companies should adopt a “life-threatening illness” policy that lets employees know the company is aware of its obligations under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and will allow an employee to work as long as possible.

* Managers should keep in regular touch with the employee to clamp down on subtle discrimination by co-workers such as coffee cups that are washed separately and equipment that suddenly becomes unavailable because someone is unwilling to share it.

* Managers and co-workers should treat the person as they do everyone else in the office, maintaining the same relationship they had before they learned of the illness; don’t avoid him or her, or be overly solicitous.

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Jennings said he has also found himself in the odd position of advising an employer not to go too far in helping a particularly cherished or senior employee who has become sick.

“We know employers who have let employees take substantial time off at full pay without putting them on full-time disability,” he said. “While that’s very generous, . . . they have to treat all employees equally under the ADA.”

* EMPLOYER HELP:

How to handle fatal illnesses, including AIDS. Page 13.

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