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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has settled yet another HIV discrimination action. Gregory Packing, the manufacturer and distributor of Suncup juice products, agreed to pay $125,000 to settle charges that it illegally terminated a machine operator after learning he was HIV positive. The settlement also requires the manufacturer to institute equal opportunity training and reporting measures.
Over the past few years, the EEOC has increased its enforcement actions against HIV discrimination. Business owners should take this as a reminder that violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers a wide range of individuals and conditions, can come with steep penalties.
The EEOC's recent HIV discrimination actions have been brought under the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against workers with disabilities. An individual has a disability under the ADA if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities. This definition covers HIV and AIDS, as well as other diseases and medical conditions.
The machinist in the Suncup case had been terminated despite there being no change in his work performance. Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from taking negative actions in employment on the basis of an employee's disability, including termination, job assignments and promotions.
The Act also protects potential customers. Companies that refuse service on the basis of HIV status, such as a dentist who refused HIV-positive clients, have also been sued by the EEOC.
People with HIV and AIDS often face stigma because of their condition. Often this stigma includes the incorrect belief that the virus is highly contagious and easily transmissible. The risks of contracting HIV from a co-worker or customer, however, are generally miniscule. Occupational transmission is extremely rare, even in health care settings.
Employers should note that the concerns of other employees or customers are not considered "undue burdens" under the ADA. An employer cannot use such concerns to justify refusing to provide reasonable accommodations or taking discriminatory actions.
Finally, employers should take care to promote a civil work environment. Harassment, such offensive remarks about an employee's disability which create a hostile work environment, can lead to action under the ADA. It does not matter if the harassment was from the employee's supervisor, co-worker, or even a customer.
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