The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Sick worker claims date on track: U.S.

The Department of Labor was given until May 26 to have regulations set up for the claims backlog and says it is 'on track.'

By Joe Walker

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Raleigh Struble and other sick former nuclear workers will be watching closely starting next week to see how well the U.S. Department of Labor expedites a huge claims backlog inherited from the Department of Energy.

Federal law signed Oct. 28 by President Bush gave the department 210 days (to May 26) to issue regulations and have staffing and procedures in place to compensate workers sickened from toxic exposure.

"The department is on track to have the regulations completed by May 26," Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary for employment standards, said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

Congress transferred the program from the Energy Department, which had 25,000 claims backlogged nationwide, including nearly 3,400 at Paducah. Last year, just before the transition, Struble received a finding from a DOE physicians' panel that he was suffering from lead poisoning stemming from his machinist work at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant from 1967 to 1978.

Despite favorable findings for Struble and other former plant workers, there was no way under the DOE system to force employers or their workers' compensation insurers to pay claims. Congress changed that by making the Labor Department the payer, but the time lag has added another six months to the several years some workers have waited for checks.

"I'm getting to where I can't walk across the room without my walking stick or holding onto furniture," said Struble, 83, of Paducah, who also has diabetes and suffers from neuropathy. "My feet are completely dead — I can't feel a thing in them — and it's going into my hands."

He said he has been told it will be at least June before the new program begins paying a substantial number of claims.

Earlier this year, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said she could not estimate how long it would take to work through the backlog but said her agency would do its best. To absorb the load, the Labor Department was hiring 200 more claims examiners either directly or by contract.

The revised law provides that nuclear workers exposed to toxins could get up to $250,000 for lost wages and bodily impairment. Some of the sickest workers, who were paid $150,000 under a separate program for radiation-induced cancer and beryllium disease, could receive as much as $400,000 under both programs.

The new program allows surviving spouses and dependent children of workers who died from toxic exposure to receive up to $175,000. For inclusion, at the time of the worker's death an eligible child must have been under 18, a full-time student under 23, or any age and incapable of self-support.

In previous public meetings, adult children of deceased workers complained that the child-survivor provision is unfair and should be changed. Lawmakers have expressed empathy, but say it was extremely difficult to pass the entitlement law even with existing provisions.

Struble hopes for enough money to help him afford assisted living for him and his wife, Velta, who is in a nursing home rehabilitating from a leg injury. He said he retired from the plant after managers threatened to fire him because of excessive absenteeism related to illness.

Workers used "white lead" spray lubricant to tap holes until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration banned the aerosol cans, Struble said, but the plant continued to mix the lead with cutting oil to lubricate large drilling machinery.

"It slung the oil all over everything, including the operators. You might as well say we took a bath in it," he said. "But they didn't tell us it would cause health problems."