The Stand

Hanford suit called a ‘depraved action’ by Trump administration

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Feds sue to block state’s protections for sick Hanford workers, their families

 

OLYMPIA (Dec. 12, 2018) — On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice followed through on its threat to sue Washington to try to force our state to scrap its protections for sick Hanford workers. The Trump administration’s DOJ filed a lawsuit to block the state from enforcing new labor-supported legislation to address the nearly insurmountable barriers that workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation face when they get sick due to toxic exposure and seek relief via the workers’ compensation system.

Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and labor and legislative leaders are vowing to vigorously defend the Hanford workers’ compensation standard from what the governor calls another “depraved action” by the Trump administration.

“We are confident in our ability to defend this legislation,” Ferguson said.

Despite the recognized risks at the nation’s most dangerous worksite, Hanford workers’ comp claims have historically been denied at five times the rate of other self-insured employers. That’s because the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors at Hanford have used the lack of accurate worksite data on exposure to some of the most hazardous substances known to man in order to question and deny the validity of sick workers’ claims.

“Before the Legislature took bipartisan action to fix our laws, workers at Hanford had to make their workers’ comp cases blindfolded with one hand tied behind their backs,” said Lynne Dodson, Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. She added:

“In Washington state, we are going to assume that certain cancers and medical conditions that are common to these workers are going to be treated unless these companies can prove otherwise. That’s the right thing to do. It is the only just and decent thing to do. It’s the least we can do for these women and men who put their lives on line to clean up this mess. Yet, the Trump administration is proving once again that the lives and well-being of workers are not important to them.”

SHB 1723, prime sponsored by Rep. Larry Haler (R-Richland) and approved earlier this year on strong bipartisan votes, enacted a previous recommendation that certain illnesses among Hanford workers are presumed to be work-related when they seek workers’ compensation coverage. This presumption is similar to the one that already exists for firefighters, who are similarly exposed to toxic chemicals and vapors in their line of work.

“We have heard firsthand, through testimony before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, of the medical tribulations experienced by these Washingtonians,” said Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent). “People have gone bankrupt paying for cancer treatments, suffered from lung disease and lost tragic battles with dementia.”

In its lawsuit to block the law, the Justice Department claims the new law, which took effect in June, is “impermissibly discriminatory because it treats other entities in the State better than it treats federal contractors and the Federal Government.”

A state Department of Labor and Industries spokesman told The Seattle Times that, as of late November, 83 claims have been reviewed under the law. Of those, 28 have been allowed, six have been denied and 49 are pending.

Advocates for Hanford workers expressed confidence that the law would survive any legal challenge.

“The cleanup from nuclear weapons production has left a trail of sick and forgotten workers in its path for decades,” said Nickolas Bumpaous, Government Affairs Director for Plumbers and Steamfitters (UA) Local 598. He added:

Washington working families are performing some of the most dangerous work, not just in our state but in the nation. Substitute House Bill 1723 has succeeded in correcting the injustices of the workers’ compensation system, and has provided protection and support to those who need it the most. I have great confidence in the Legislature and in state lawmakers’ willingness to reform programs so that they may reflect the moral backbone of all Washingtonians. The federal government should spend more time allocating resources to the protection and safety of working families, and less time trying to eradicate a much-needed state law.”

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