The labor secretary’s visit followed a decision that her agency would oversee the program, which will pay sick workers $150,000.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Chao, who visited the plant Thursday and later spoke with sick retired workers, said the speed of the "very ambitious" process depends heavily on filing proposed regulations by May 31, as mandated by Congress, "and we expect to meet that deadline." She said a draft was submitted earlier this week to the Office of Management and Budget, Congress' accounting arm, which has pledged to hasten its normal 90-day review process.
Assuming the schedule is met, the Department of Labor will begin taking applications July 1 and the final rules will be effective July 31, Chao said. She urged workers to apply promptly, and said checks could be in the mail starting two months after the rules are finalized.
"I can promise the workers and the community that we will give our all to put the program in place as quickly as possible," Chao said, "and with as much concern for those who have been made ill as humanly possible."
Chao also said Paducah was chosen for a resource center — one of at least nine nationwide for sick nuclear workers — to help people understand the system and file claims. Although a site has not been picked, the center will be staffed with local personnel, she said.
Chao promised to have a national toll-free call center ready by the end of May, and said workers will be able to download application forms from the department's Web site. Within two months, a team will hold meetings here to answer workers' questions, she said.
Her visit followed a decision that her agency, rather than the Department of Justice, would oversee the program, which will pay qualifying sick workers or their surviving families $150,000 and future medical costs. Although claims are subject to review, workers are guaranteed compensation if they have specified illnesses related to exposure from radiation, beryllium or silica.
Also eligible are sick workers at the Honeywell plant in Metropolis, Ill., which supplies uranium hexafluoride for enrichment at Paducah.
Chao, wife of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who sponsored the sick-worker legislation, drew the ire of union officials and others earlier this year when she proposed turning the program over to the Justice Department. She said Thursday that she reconsidered after becoming convinced that the Labor Department could handle the claims.
"Admittedly, it's a great deal of work, so you can understand my concern," Chao said. Her agency must hire 300 claims adjusters, reviewers and clerical people by July 31 to meet the demands of the program, one of four for sick workers under the Labor Department umbrella.
The new program targets about 700,000 nuclear workers nationwide and 10,000 at Paducah, said Shelby Hallmark, acting head of the Office of Worker Compensation Programs. Those eligible for benefits are only a fraction of that number, he said, but there still could be 50,000 claims during the first year.
Workers at Paducah and other uranium enrichment plants are "carved out" of the legislation to ease and expedite their claims, Chao said.
Before discussing the program with news media, Chao chatted with employees in the plant lunchroom, talking about their jobs and lives and looking at family photographs. She then took a bus tour of the sprawling facility and spent considerable time asking questions in the control center, where virtually every aspect of the plant is constantly monitored.
One of her interviewees — Don Loe, a 33-year operator — said the facility is unlike any other at the plant. "When I first walked in, it sort of reminded me of the Starship Enterprise, and they said 'you're going to fly it.'"
Loe said he appreciated Chao's kindness and curiosity. "I think it's important for anyone in politics to know what we're doing, how we're doing it and that we should continue doing it."
Chao ended her plant stay by meeting with leaders of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union local, which represents more than half the plant workers. She then drove to the local's meeting hall on Cairo Road to talk with sick workers and their families.
Union President David Fuller said her trip to Paducah was important, considering that sick employees have waited a long time for help.
"I think it's entirely appropriate that she should come here to announce this," he said. "I hope it works as well as she says she thinks it's going to."
Although there was speculation Chao would name Dr. David Michaels to head the program, she said nothing about him. Michaels was a central figure in a Department of Energy investigation into past practices that sickened workers, as well as their health testing. He has said he would like to be involved in planning and drafting final details of the compensation program.
Fuller said he made suggestions to Chao about trustworthy people to lead the program.
"I wouldn't want to say who we suggested, but obviously, David Michaels has been deeply involved in this and we have a lot of faith in him," Fuller said. "If somebody suggested him, I think he would be a wonderful choice."