By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
"It is a very friendly atmosphere," Chao said after touring the office. "All of the workers here have some ties to the plant ... so they really care about helping people. There also are private offices where people can meet with counselors to discuss their situation."
The center officially opened Monday with a ribbon cutting by Chao, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, Paducah Mayor Bill Paxton and center director Stewart Tolar. It is the first of 10 centers nationwide to help nuclear weapons workers file claims under a new compensation program approved last year by Congress.
While Chao and others were outside holding the ceremony, several former workers were inside getting help filling out applications that could result in payments of $150,000 plus future medical costs.
Although claims forms are being filled out now, the U.S. Department of Labor won't begin processing them until July 31. The applications will be processed at the Department of Labor's regional office in Jacksonville, Fla. Chao said she hopes the first payments are made by the end of the summer.
"This is a major step forward in America's commitment to the well-being of our nuclear industry workers and their families," Chao said. "It is a tragedy that more was not done to care for these injured workers sooner. These injured workers are American heroes, and they deserve to be treated as such. I just wish we could do more."
Benefits will be paid to current and former workers who have been diagnosed with certain types of cancer, and with other illnesses that can be tied directly to exposure at the plant.
Whitfield said if it were not for the efforts of Chao, the wife of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the compensation program would not have been implemented until the end of the year.
"Soon after we passed the compensation act last October, I talked with the Department of Labor ... and was told the earliest date it would be implemented was the end of this year," Whitfield said. "It has opened six months early, and it would not have happened if she was not the secretary of labor."
Shelby Hallmark, director of compensation programs for the U.S. Department of Labor, said the major concern expressed about the proposed regulations are the limits on the eligibility of children of workers who died from plant-related illnesses.
Eligible survivors are a spouse or children who were child dependents at the time of the worker's death. Generally, it means that surviving children who were over the age of 18 at the time of the worker's death will not be eligible for the $150,000 lump-sum payment.
Some surviving children have complained that they should receive benefits even if they were adults at the time of the death.
Hallmark, however, said eligibility was established in the legislation approved last year by Congress. "It isn't something we can change .... unless Congress changes it," he said.
He added that the eligibility program is the same as for all other federal government compensation programs, including Social Security.