The regulations implement the program established by Part D of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) of 2000.
"Employees of DOE contractors have performed important work for their country," Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said yesterday. "Even though they may have worked for a government contractor, these dedicated individuals are our workers and we are going to take care of them."
He said the Energy Department will help current and former contract workers verify employment history, establish levels of exposure to toxic substances and verify causes of illness. Under this program, the agency will "remove bureaucratic barriers that currently confront deserving contractor employees when they seek to obtain state workers' compensation benefits," said Abraham.
The rule ensures "that DOE assists as many of those contractor employees, who may have been exposed to toxic substances while working at DOE facilities, as possible in obtaining the state workers' compensation benefits they deserve," he added.
The program reverses a long-standing policy in which the Energy Department fought compensation claims by nuclear weapons workers who were exposed to toxic chemicals. The new regulations even instruct contractors not to contest the claims, a major change from draft versions of the regulations, which allowed contractors to contest claims and even said the department would help contractors pay for appeals.
Under the program governed by the regulations issued yesterday, applicants may submit to DOE an application for a determination of whether a worker's illness or death arose from exposure to toxic substances at a DOE facility. All applications that meet a certain minimum threshold - including verification of work history and showing that their illness may be caused by exposure to toxic substances while working at a DOE facility - will be referred to an independent, non-DOE physician panel for a determination of whether exposure to a toxic substance during employment at a DOE facility was a significant factor in causing the worker's illness.
If the panel finds in the applicant's favor, DOE will assist the applicant in filing and supporting a claim for state workers' compensation benefits. DOE will also direct the worker's contractor employer not to contest the applicant's state claim with respect to the health condition that was the subject of the physician panel's finding.
The DOE's program is separate from, and contains different standards, requirements and benefits, than the program managed by the Department of Labor (DOL) for former and current workers at DOE facilities. The DOL program offers medical and financial support for workers who have illnesses related to exposure to beryllium, silica and radiation, and provides direct federal payments of up to $150,000 to eligible workers, which may include federal employees. The DOE program is open to DOE contractor and subcontractor employees, and helps qualified workers to obtain benefits that they may be entitled to receive under state workers' compensation programs.
Approximately 10,000 workers have filed applications with both the DOE and DOL programs; an additional 2,700 applications have been filed with only the DOE program.
Workers who are interested in applying to the Department of Energy for assistance should contact the DOE toll-free hotline at (877) 447-9756. Additional information, including a copy of the Final Rule, a Frequently Asked Questions document and other resource material, is available through at tis.eh.doe.gov/advocacy.