An advocacy group for workers in the nuclear weapons industry is calling on Congress to hold hearings to investigate charges from a Labor Department whistleblower that government officials are purposefully thwarting ill workers' or their widows' claims for compensation required by law.
The Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups (ANWAG) sent a letter to several members of Congress Tuesday, calling on them to investigate the whistleblower's complaints about the program's administration, which the Washington Free Beacon first reported late last week.
Terrie Barrie, a top ANWAG official, said the whistleblower complaints confirm "several concerns we have raised for over a decade" about how Department of Labor (DOL) administrators are running a Congressionally mandated program created to compensate workers who lost their health and, in many cases, their lives building up the country's nuclear weapons arsenal.
"Until the publication of this story, ANWAG was unaware that any DOL employee shared the same concerns about the program that the advocates have voiced," she wrote in a letter to Sens. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Patty Murray (D., Wash.), the committee's ranking member.
"It is disturbing that despite DOL leadership being made aware of these problems independently by unrelated parties, they chose instead to ignore the allegations and failed to protect the integrity of the program," she added.
While many congressional leaders strongly support the sick nuclear workers, she said there has been no congressional oversight of the compensation program in nearly 10 years, with the last hearing on the issue occurring in the Senate's HELP Committee in 2007.
"It is time, and ANWAG strongly urges Congress to hold hearings in the very near future to not only investigate the allegations made by the DOL whistleblower and ANWAG but also to determine if [the program] is fulfilling the purpose of this compensation program, as Congress defined it," Barrie wrote.
She then cited language from the law that said the program was created to provide "timely, uniform and adequate compensation of covered employees, and, where applicable, survivors of such employees, suffering from illnesses incurred by such employees in the performance of duty" for the Energy Department's Cold War nuclear programs.
Barrie also sent the letter to the Senate and House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, as well as the House Workforce and Education Committee.
Her letter was signed by eight other heads of organizations or designated advocates around the country that try to assist sick workers with their claims, including the Energy Employees Claimant Assistant Project, the Atomic Workers Advocacy Group, and advocates for claimants who worked at nuclear plants in Denver, Co., Kansas City, Mo., and Paducah, Ky.
Stephen Silbiger, an attorney in the Labor Department's Solicitor's Office, told the Free Beacon last week that officials running the compensation program "thwarted workers' attempts to seek the compensation by writing regulations that made qualification much more stringent than Congress intended, failing to disclose all the application rules, changing eligibility rules midstream, and delaying compensation for years until the sick workers died."
Silbiger also noted that Labor Department leadership under former Labor Secretary Tom Perez ignored years of his complaints about the "open hostility" he said some officials exhibited toward claimants, many of whom are too poor and sick to fight the agency's denials and red tape in federal court.
Specifically, Silbiger said an attorney in the Solictor's Office "expressed disdain for some claimants and said he hoped they would never receive their benefits."
When Congress passed the law creating the compensation program in 2000, a bipartisan group of lawmakers promised these nuclear workers a claimant-friendly path to compensating them or their families for illnesses related to the country's nuclear build-up and their exposure to toxins at bomb-making facilities.
Under the law, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), qualified workers or their survivors who were diagnosed with certain types of cancer or other diseases from exposure to toxic substances at covered facilities are entitled to between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation to help pay medical bills and loss of wages due to their illnesses, with a cap of $400,000.
Barrie acknowledged that Congress has tried to help fix the program by establishing an ombudsman office specifically for the EEOICP in 2005 and then in 2015 creating an Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health to help provide technical expertise to the DOL administrators and serve as a liaison between the agency and claimants.
However, Barrie noted that neither entities have investigative or enforcement powers.
"They can report recommendations, but [the program's administrators are] free to ignore their professional advice," she wrote.
Those administrators, she said, are still "accountable to no one to the detriment of workers who gave their health and lives for our country."
Before learning about the whistleblower's similar concerns, ANWAG sent a complaint to the DOL inspector general in mid-July calling for an immediate and full investigation into the administrators' handing of the claims "to determine if unethical or illegal regulatory procedures occurred which may have resulted in unjustified denial of claims."