Frustration grows as sick workers wait for benefits
Three months ago, the U.S. Department of Labor said it was ready to process toxic-exposure claims, but the wait for checks continues.
By Joe Walker
Friday, August 26, 2005
Bill Boucher and other sick former Paducah nuclear workers are still waiting, three months after the U.S. Department of Labor announced it was ready to start processing toxic-exposure claims.
"I haven't heard a thing," said Boucher, of Paducah. "Secretary Elaine Chao was going to come down here personally and hand out some checks."
Chao said May 27 when the regulations were finalized that the first to be paid would be sick workers approved for compensation before Congress transferred the heavily backlogged program last fall from the Department of Energy to the Labor Department.
Others to receive checks in coming months would be those with established lost wages or impairment from toxic exposure, and people with the clearest links between illness and exposure, Chao said.
Although she said claims would be paid "as quickly as possible," no goals were set. Labor officials said they intended to issue at least 1,200 checks nationally by Oct. 1, the start of a new fiscal year.
"The Department of Labor is committed to getting benefits to eligible workers and their families as quickly as possible," spokesman David James said Thursday.
Boucher, who received prior approval for compensation, suffers from asbestosis, chronic lung disease, congestive heart failure and sensitivity to beryllium, a highly toxic metal once used at the plant.
Paducahan Robert Pierce also is frustrated, having been approved nearly 18 months ago for compensation related to larynx cancer that robbed him of his plant job and voice. Speaking in a whisper, Pierce said he is still trying to get reimbursed for more than $2,000 spent traveling to Nashville, Tenn., for 12 throat surgeries since 2001.
"I still haven't gotten a penny for travel and lodging," he said. "I feel like if they're having that much trouble just getting that together, Lord knows how they're going to do on paying for impairment and lost earnings."
The sickest workers exposed to toxins could receive up to $250,000 for bodily impairment and lost wages. Pierce said he understands that no one has been paid because the Labor Department is still ironing out procedures.
Another provision allows surviving spouses and dependent children of workers who died from toxic exposure to receive up to $175,000. James said many of those claims were paid previously to surviving spouses because that did not require having the new regulations in place.
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. Adult children of deceased sick workers picketed the Paducah claims center in June, saying it was unfair to deny them compensation.
Nuclear workers' union President Bill Cossler said he has talked with many people who are worried about the payment lag. Among them are sick workers awaiting checks long after claims approval by a physicians' panel.
Paducahan Raleigh Struble received approval last year, having suffered lead poisoning that caused neuropathy and left him barely able to walk. He said he was told recently that his case was complicated by other factors, such as emphysema and heart disease.
"I'm really going downhill and all they can do is think up different ways to postpone things," Struble said. "I talked to someone at the union hall and he said he knew of four or five who have lead poisoning and haven't been paid."
Former plant worker Harold Hargan of Mounds, Ill., has lung disease that caused removal of the upper part of one of his lungs. He said he talks regularly with two other men one with leukemia and another with various ailments who also haven't been paid. The three worked in one of the most contaminated buildings at the plant.
"They're taking over half my pension for medical insurance," Hargan said. "I left the plant with total and permanent disability. I think I should've gotten some workers' comp."
Hargan, Pierce and Paducahan Earl Hobbs each have received $150,000 from the Labor Department under a separate program that pays workers for radiation-induced cancers. Having just undergone another round of chemotherapy, Hobbs was too sick to be interviewed Thursday. But his mother said he has not been paid for toxic exposure, and hasn't heard anything definitive about his claim.
Pierce said some delays are understandable because toxic-exposure profiles are complex and time-consuming. But he said he has grown exasperated dealing with various Labor Department offices, one of which handles claims approvals and another that mails checks. Pierce said he complained so much that he now has a new case worker.
He said the delays are not the fault of the Paducah claims center, whose managers and staff have been "extraordinarily helpful."
Claims may be filed or reviewed at 125 Memorial Drive, next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home off Blandville Road. Phone: 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599.