Labor Department Begins to Compensate Former Energy Workers

The federal government finally appears to be making progress in a long-stalled effort to compensate the survivors of former energy workers who were exposed to deadly toxic substances.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced it has approved almost 100 such claims, and soon expects to complete work on 100 more. Last year, after claimants complained of long delays in processing their claims, Congress altered the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) and transferred the administration of it from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor.

In October, President Bush signed into law an amendment to the EEOICPA that created this new "Part E" program to provide federal compensation and medical benefits to contractors and subcontractors, or their survivors, who worked at certain Department of Energy facilities and sustained an occupational illness or injury as a result of exposure to toxic substances.

"These workers were harmed in service to our country and compensation to them and their families is long overdue," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

There are two reasons the Labor Department has been able to get the claims out the door more rapidly than when the Department of Energy ran the program, according to Peter Turcic, director of the Department of Labor's energy compensation program.

First, Congress changed the law, giving the federal government more power to process claims, instead of relying on state workers' compensation systems to pay benefits.

"Also, we have a lot of experience with this type of [compensation] program," Turcic said. Congress switched the program, formerly known as "Part D," to the Department of Labor after critics charged the Department of Energy had failed to process claims swiftly enough.

While Part E covers any illness contracted due to a worker's exposure at a Department of Energy facility, since 2001 the Department of Labor has been administering a different program known as "Part B" that compensates victims of cancers, beryllium disease and silicosis.

The Department of Labor has made final decisions in 54 percent of the 60,000 claims made under Part B, disbursing over $1 billion in compensation and medical benefits. Victims or survivors are granted $150,000 compensation for these Part B diseases and $125,000 under Part E.

Despite the progress, Turcic confessed the Department of Labor still has thousands more claims to process in both Parts B and E and, he added, "more are coming in daily."

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