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It's not old news Featured

9:35am EDT July 22, 2002

Last year, Les Ridout of Huntington Bancshares hardly saw AIDS on his radar of employee concerns.

"Ten, 12, 15 years ago, when you had a group of employees in a banking office or in any office ... if they were aware that somebody had AIDS, it was fear of the unknown. So we'd have our employee assistance program people go in and say, 'Look, this is no more communicable -- unless you go in and have an intimate relationship with this person -- than, say, cancer,'" says Ridout, executive vice president and human resources director for Huntington.

"Over the years, people became more aware of that. Now, when office mates become aware of a co-worker with AIDS, certainly there's sympathy and empathy as opposed to fear and misunderstanding. We've really come along."

That's why he was taken aback when the Columbus AIDS Task Force approached him last summer to talk about AIDS awareness training in the workplace. He just didn't think it was necessary.

Ridout's reaction, the task force members told him, was just the point. The awareness level has dropped below the horizon, they said; people still are not taking precautions, and baby boomers who are getting divorced and back in the dating scene are encountering the AIDS situation for the first time.

In response, Ridout arranged for the task force to discuss the issue at a meeting of more than a dozen Huntington regional HR managers from across the country. Later, Huntington hosted an educational luncheon for other HR executives from employers such as Wendy's International, Nationwide Insurance, Ameritech Ohio, Sanese Services Inc. and The Ohio State University.

It's a program the task force wants to put into full swing to reach smaller businesses late this fall or early winter.

"I think the reason it has dropped off as a health crisis in people's minds is they're seeing in the media there are new medications; people aren't dying as they were five years ago," says Lori Yosick, interim executive director of the task force.

In the five years she's been working with the task force, she's seen the demographics of its clients changing: Gay, Caucasian men made up 80 percent five years ago; now less than 55 percent come from that demographic. Men of other races and women also are entering the picture. The age group is spreading out as well.

"We have more intakes coming through our doors right now than we did two years ago -- about one new client a day," Yosick says. "The scary thing is we know how HIV spreads, we know how people can be protected, yet people are still getting infected."

The task force can provide employers with an AIDS in the workplace training packet, including details about an HIV/AIDS policy and speakers for employee meetings.

"You never would have thought 10 years ago you would have somebody coming into a workplace talking about HIV," Yosick says, "but it's a real issue." How to reach: Columbus AIDS Task Force, www.netwalk.com/~catf or 299-2437. For more information about AIDS in the workplace, contact the American Red Cross Greater Columbus Chapter, www.redcross.org/cmh-oh/schedule.htm or 253-2740, ext. 2349; the national American Red Cross, www.redcross.org/hss/HIVAIDS/workplace/index.html; the National AIDS Fund Workplace Resource Center, www.aidsfund.org/workplac.htm or (888) 234-AIDS; or the Society for Human Resource Management, www.shrm.org/diversity/aidsguide or (703) 548-3440.

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.