The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

House, Labor feud over oversight home of sick worker plan
Ed Whitfield and seven others say Labor is already set up to deal with this type of program; Labor Secretary Elaine Chao wants Justice to handle it.

By Joe Walker

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield and seven House colleagues insist that a program to compensate sick nuclear workers be run by the Department of Labor, although new Labor Secretary Elaine Chao wants the Department of Justice to do the job.

The lawmakers have written Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels asking that the Labor Department administer the program, designed to pay as much as $150,000 to nuclear workers or their families for certain job-related diseases or death. Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, co-sponsored legislation that created the plan and designated the Labor Department as overseer. Current and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant are covered.

Chao is married to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. McConnell released a statement Thursday without taking a stance on which agency should oversee the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

A March 9 letter from the Labor Department expressed opposition to its own oversight of the worker-health program and asked Justice to run it. The letter of response stressed that the intent of Congress and former President Clinton was for the Labor Department to have control because of its long experience with similar programs and its suitable regional office network.

"We want to underscore that this proposed change is at odds with congressional intent, would assign a massive set of responsibilities to agencies that lack the infrastructure to manage these claims, and will result in protracted delays in getting help to the veterans of the Cold War who are ill and expect the government to honor its commitments to help them in their time of need," the letter stated.

Lawmakers wrote that the Labor Department was picked for oversight because of its expertise in handling prominent worker-health programs, notably the Longshore and Harbor Workers Act, Coal Miners' Black Lung Disease Act, and Federal Employment Compensation Act (FECA).

"The Department of Labor is best suited to effectively administer this new federal compensation program, which is intended to be a non-adversarial claims program, modeled, in part, after FECA," the letter said.

McConnell's statement said:

"It is important that we not lose sight of the goal we all fought so hard for last fall compensating (Department of Energy) workers who were made sick as a result of their work. Once the (Bush) administration reviews the requirements of the program and determines its appropriate home, there will be no member of Congress who will fight harder than I will to make sure the process is fair and responds to the needs of the workers it seeks to help. That should be everyone's definition of a successful program."