The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Paducah sick worker

Sick-worker case backlog means 6-month pay delay

By Joe Walker
jwalker@paducahsun.com
270.575.8656

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao says it will take her staff until May to make preparations for the 25,000 backlogged claims.

It will be midyear before disabled Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers start being compensated for diseases related to toxic exposure, the U.S. Labor Department says.

That's because the department will not have regulations and resources in place until late May to process the bulk of 25,000 claims backlogged nationwide many for as long as four years under a program that had been handled by the Department of Energy.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao could not estimate how long it will take to work through the backlog but said her agency will do its best. The Labor Department is hiring 200 more claims examiners, either directly or by contract, to absorb the load.

"These workers were harmed in service to our country, and compensation to them and their families is long overdue," Chao said. "We are working very hard to ensure that this program is up and running as quickly as possible and that these workers receive the compensation they are due."

Chao and Shelby Hallmark, who heads the program, held a media teleconference Tuesday to provide an update and answer questions. The Labor Department took over the program in October by an act of Congress.

Among other things, the Labor Department pays survivors a flat $125,000 if a worker died of a covered condition. If an employee lost work before dying, compensation increases to $150,000 or $175,000, depending on extent of lost wages.

Hallmark said there about 1,000 of those cases nationwide, including about 100 that have been approved and will be paid within a month. Three checks have been issued so far: one to Lera "Ernestine" Cloyes of Ashland, widow of Paducah nuclear worker James Cloyes, and two to women in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

For the remaining cases those of living workers who suffered disabilities and wage losses regulations must be in place to calculate the level of compensation. Fortunately, about 90 percent of those also involve claims filed under a separate program paying $150,000 for workers with radiation-induced cancer, chronic beryllium disease and silicosis, Hallmark said.

"That does give us a leg up because our claims processors in the four district offices are familiar with the cases," he said. In some instances, claims personnel may have medical records for the same condition that prompted a claim under both programs, Hallmark said.

The new program establishes a $250,000 payment cap, which means total maximum compensation is now $400,000 under both programs. Positive findings under the cancer program are accepted under the toxic-exposure program for the same illnesses.

As of Jan. 3, the Labor Department had paid $173.4 million on behalf of 1,157 Paducah nuclear workers for radiation-induced cancers or beryllium disease. Another 999 had been referred to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to determine if there was a link between exposure and disease.

Most of the claims denied under the cancer/beryllium disease program were because they were filed under both the Labor and Energy departments for the same condition, Hallmark said, adding that the Labor Department is reviewing those. He said 1,905 Paducah cases have been denied out of 4,433 filed.

It is too early to determine the backlog under the toxic-exposure program in individual cities like Paducah, Hallmark said, but the Labor Department is working to clarify the numbers.

Leon Owens of the local nuclear workers' union said NIOSH officials have agreed to meet at 10 a.m. Feb. 10 with current and former employees to discuss an exposure profile of the Paducah plant. He said the meeting is tentatively planned for the Robert Cherry Civic Center to provide adequate parking. A similar meeting is being arranged for Feb. 11 for construction tradesmen who have worked at the plant over the years, Owens said.

Although the plant profile was for radiation exposure only, workers think it should be expanded to cover work areas and toxins to help speed up claims under the new program, Owens said. Another concern is that the profile relies heavily on exposure data from the Energy Department, which was spotty until recent years.

NIOSH spokesman Fred Blosser encouraged those who have concerns about site profiles to contact the agency at 513-533-6800 or by e-mail at ocas@cdc.gov.

He said NIOSH is involved only with the program for radiation-induced cancer and beryllium disease, not the toxic-exposure program. There are about 11,000 radiation exposure reconstructions pending nationwide, partly because NIOSH was understaffed in earlier years and also has had trouble getting old Energy Department records.

"We've staffed up and consequently increased the rate of doing the work," Blosser said. "To date, we've processed 6,243 cases."

Claims may be filed at the Paducah Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center, 125 Memorial Drive, next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home off Blandville Road. Phone: 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599. E-mail: paducah.center@eh.doe.gov.