Chao jump-starts workers' program
Chao got off to a rocky start with supporters of a program Congress created last year to compensate workers, former workers and their surviving family members for illnesses the workers contracted as a result of exposure to hazardous materials in federal nuclear facilities. Workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and the Honeywell plant in Metropolis, Ill., are included in the compensation program.
The labor secretary initially feared that her agency could not get the entitlement program, which is expected to process at least 70,000 claims a year, up and running by the July 31 deadline set by Congress.
For a time, she lobbied to have the program transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice or another federal agency.
This caused concern among congressional supporters of the program, including 1st District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, who, along with Chao's husband, U.S. Sen. Mitch Connell, led the fight for the compensation legislation.
Congress and the Clinton administration agreed last year that the Labor Department should handle the sick workers' claims.
In mid-April, with the clock clicking down toward the July 31 deadline for the Labor Department to begin accepting applications for benefits, Chao set aside her reservations and began working hard to get the program on track.
The results so far have been impressive. The Labor Department completed the final draft of the proposed regulations for the program and submitted it last week for publication in the Federal Register.
By making this early deadline, Chao ensured that the Labor Department will be able to accept applications from workers and their families by July 31.
It's easy to see why Chao hesitated in the face of the task of administering the compensation program.
To prepare for the July 31 deadline, Labor Department officials will have to hire 300 claims adjusters and clerical employees. The agency will establish resource centers in Paducah and eight other cities nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Energy has identified 317 sites in 37 states where workers exposed to contamination might qualify for benefits. Over the next four years the program is expected to pay out $1.8 billion in benefits.
Clearly, the Labor Department has its work cut out for it. But the good news is that the agency has considerable experience administering large workers' compensation programs.
Officials with the labor union that represents more than half the workers at Paducah's uranium enrichment plant and the architects of the compensation legislation are convinced the department is capable of processing claims in a timely manner.
Workers and the families of deceased workers in Paducah generally have been impressed with Chao's response to the challenge of administering the program.
The labor secretary received high marks for attentiveness and sincerity when she visited the Paducah facility last month. Word that she apparently will clear the most difficult hurdle — getting the machinery of the program in place by the end of July — undoubtedly will bolster her credibility with the workers.
That's a significant achievement, given the federal government's record of broken promises in Paducah.
A hope is that Chao will be able to restore some of the credibility the government lost by keeping nuclear weapons plant workers in the dark about their hazardous working conditions and then spending years denying responsibility for any illnesses they suffered.