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This summer, a 25-year-old Lancaster County woman cut her finger on the bread slicer at the sandwich shop where she worked. She tended to her wound and to the equipment in the appropriate way for any workplace injury. The shop owner advised her to go to the emergency room, saying their workers’ compensation insurance would pay the bill. The woman got four stitches at the hospital and returned to work the next day. After her shift, she was called into the office, where the owner, the manager and a co-worker were waiting. “I’m sorry,” said the crying co-worker, in whom the woman had confided a year earlier that she had HIV. The manager began screaming that she was a horrible person because she has HIV and cut herself. Then the owner fired her, saying that she’s a nice girl, but that because she has HIV she can’t work in food services. Not so, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 17 years, HIV has never made the CDC’s annual list of diseases transmitted through food handling. Still, the woman was suddenly without income and deeply disappointed in the people she thought were her friends. To make matters worse, she was denied unemployment compensation because the employer claimed she’d been fired for cause � the willful misconduct of failing to disclose she had HIV. Like hundreds of people who face discrimination every year because of HIV/AIDS, the woman turned for help to the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, the nation’s only independent public-interest law firm providing free legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS. The firm appealed the unemployment compensation decision, asserting that the woman had undertaken all appropriate steps to ensure the safety of her co-workers, and that she had no legal obligation to disclose her HIV. Last month, the unemployment comp board agreed � finding no evidence of a legal obligation to disclose, and ruling that the woman’s behavior was not misconduct. She now receives income, while she seeks another job. Cases like this must be pursued and publicized. It not only involves supporting the rights of a worker treated unfairly, but it also educates the public about workplace safety, infection control, and not letting AIDS hysteria get in the way of common sense. More than 25 years have passed since the first diagnosed case of AIDS, and still the epidemic rages on. The United Nations estimates that 39.5 million people are living with HIV, including 2.3 million children. According to the CDC, 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV. That figure includes 35,000 people in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. HIV/AIDS is fueled by poverty, inequities in race, gender and class, homophobia and insufficient resources to treat mental illness and substance abuse. The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania has been trying to slow the epidemic by addressing one of its accelerants: hatred and bias from all areas of society. Much of that hatred stems from ignorance and fear � fear of getting AIDS, and of what it may say about the person who has it. Last year, the AIDS Law Project’s staff of 12, assisted by volunteer attorneys and law-student interns, provided free legal services on more than 3,300 cases throughout Pennsylvania. The firm also trains thousands of case managers, physicians, nurses, social workers and government officials each year on the rights and legal protections of people with HIV/AIDS, and publishes groundbreaking guides including AIDS and The Law: Your Rights in Pennsylvania and The HIV/AIDS Public Benefits Advocacy Manual. The AIDS Law Project conducts three educational seminars each month in Center City. These seminars are free and open to the public. “Leaving Your Job” helps people with HIV/AIDS who are thinking about leaving a job and need specific information to make that transition. “Back to Work” deals with attempting to work while receiving Social Security benefits; keeping Medicaid and Medicare, and returning to public benefits in the event of poor health. And, recognizing that secure affordable housing is crucial for people with serious health care needs, a seminar is offered on “Housing: Tenant’s Rights and Responsibilities.” Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day, which is dedicated to increasing awareness, fighting prejudice and improving education about HIV/AIDS. On this World AIDS Day, why not commit to helping fight the epidemic? Get educated about AIDS, and educate others about how AIDS is transmitted. Spread the word that people with AIDS present no risk in the workplace, at the doctor’s office or in the neighborhood. Share accurate information and challenge AIDS phobia wherever you encounter it � at your job, at your family dinner table or out with your friends. The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania welcomes you to join the fight where we fight it � on the front lines. For more information, please give us a call at 215-587-9377, or check out our Web site at http://www.aidslawpa.org . Ronda B. Goldfein is the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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