By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
New legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, would expand provisions and double the benefits of a proposed program to compensate Department of Energy plant employees who got sick from exposure to harmful workplace substances.
Introduced in Congress Tuesday by Whitfield and Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, the bill is endorsed by the nationwide atomic workers union. It covers all workers or survivors, or both, for a variety of job-related illnesses at all 26 DOE sites nationwide and treats everyone the same, regardless of the disease, Whitfield said.
The bill also establishes the Department of Labor's Office of Work Compensation Programs to oversee benefits. Narrower legislation that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced last month has DOE overseeing claims.
"I feel very strongly that since the DOE ran the program that caused the problem, it should not be administering the program," Whitfield said.
Eligible claims would be paid at levels already set under the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA) plus provisions for health care and medical diagnostic tests or a $200,000 single payment plus health care. The compensation act pays as much as 66 percent of wages for fully disabled workers, Whitfield said.
Richardson's proposal provides FECA-level benefits plus health care for workers sick from exposure to beryllium or radiation, or a lump sum of $100,000 with no health care provisions.
Both the DOE and Whitfield proposals say employees who receive awards must not sue the federal government or their employers, except for intentional tort and third-party actions under state law.
Under DOE legislation, help for workers exposed to hazardous materials other than beryllium and radiation would come through state workers' compensation programs that usually pay little and take years to process. Richardson said the department will serve as advocate for those workers and not contest claims.
Whitfield's bill shifts the burden of proof to the government for radiation-related diseases at all DOE sites, rather than just Paducah; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Oak Ridge, Tenn. Paducah and Portsmouth have uranium enrichment plants, and Oak Ridge has a closed enrichment plant.
For illnesses related to exposures to heavy metals and toxins other than beryllium and radiation, the Whitfield bill establishes a panel of doctors through the Department of Health and Human Services. The panel would determine if exposure contributed to a claimant's disease. Another advisory panel within the health department would develop a list of other diseases leading to workplace illnesses.
Another component of the new bill is to make communities with DOE defense nuclear facilities eligible for grants from the Economic Development Administration to help offset plant closings or job reductions. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant will lose another 271 workers starting July 14, and USEC Inc. is considering closing either the Paducah or Portsmouth plant.
A statement issued on behalf of Richardson said he will continue cooperating with lawmakers who "share his goal of helping sick workers get the compensation they have long deserved." He said the Whitfield-Strickland bill uses the "same framework" as the DOE proposal.
"The administration continues to work with members of the House and Senate to encourage passage of legislation before Congress leaves this fall," the statement continued. "It's important that (lawmakers) have taken action to help sick workers and their families."
Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), criticized Richardson, contending he is backing legislation that fell short of workers' needs. The Whitfield bill fills the gaps, Miller said.
"This bill sets the high water mark against which all proposals should be judged," Miller said. "PACE fully endorses this legislation to right the wrongs that Secretary Richardson has properly admitted."
Because it is more limited in scope, the Richardson proposal is expected to cost $525 million over five years.
"Ours is clearly going to be more than that because we cover more workers and more illnesses at a higher level of compensation," Whitfield said. "I've asked the Congressional Budget Office to come up with an estimated cost, and that has not been completed yet."
The bill has "strong" bipartisan support in the House and Senate, largely because it expands compensation to include all states that have DOE plants, Whitfield said. "If you realistically are going to pass legislation to provide these benefits, you need to provide this for every DOE site."
Sen. Mitch McConnell issued a statement supporting Whitfield's efforts and saying he is co-sponsoring similar legislation.
Passing the bill will be challenging because it is complex, about 100 pages long and much different from previous bills to compensate sick workers, Whitfield said, adding that he hopes for passage this year.
"This is a significant, new compensation plan, so I'm not going to say it's going to be easy to pass it," he said. "But I firmly believe that this legislation will be passed at some point in time."