Senate labor committee chair bemoans Biden administration decision to continue Trump-era effort blocking workers’ comp benefits for sick nuclear cleanup workers


OLYMPIA (Sept. 16, 2021) — Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), chair of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee, issued the following statement Wednesday after the announcement that the Biden administration will continue a Trump administration challenge to the Washington state law strengthening workers’ compensation access for workers at the Hanford nuclear site:

“I am both angry and sad at the Biden Administration’s appeal to overturn a vital law that protects workers’ health and access to workers’ compensation coverage when they get sick on the job. Many workers on the Hanford reservation have suffered terrible, painful and debilitating diseases from their exposure to some 1,500 toxic gases while working to clean up the Hanford nuclear waste facilities in our state. After becoming ill, they were unable to use workers’ compensation benefits because federal contractors claimed they could have been exposed somewhere else. This cynical employer behavior delayed or denied appropriate health care to extremely ill individual workers.

“That’s why in 2018, the Washington State Legislature passed a bipartisan bill into law granting these vulnerable workers “presumption” of occupational illnesses, to guarantee their access to workers’ compensation coverage and benefits. Once HB 1723 was signed into law, the Trump Administration sued the state, claiming it violated federal jurisdiction. Attorney General Bob Ferguson successfully defended the law in U.S. District Court and in the Ninth Circuit Court. To have that ruling appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the Biden Administration confounds me.

“This isn’t some inter-governmental jurisdictional spat, this is disrupting the lives of sick and suffering Hanford workers. Industrial insurance is a state-only program, with no federal oversight. In 1937, Congress acted to give states authority to apply their state industrial insurance laws to federal projects. The Biden Administration should withdraw their appeal immediately. This isn’t about intergovernmental immunity. This is about workers sick from toxic fumes and exposures who are suffering and dying from their occupational diseases—and whether they will get the health care they deserve.

“This year, the Washington State Legislature passed a law giving front line essential workers presumptive workers’ compensation coverage for COVID-19 illnesses. I certainly hope that the Biden Administration will recognize that states should be able to provide workers’ compensation benefits to any worker made sick from on-the-job exposures.

“Today I sent letters to both Sen. Patty Murray and U. S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh urging the Biden administration to reconsider their request for Supreme Court consideration.”

PREVIOUSLY at The Stand:

(March 26, 2021) — Sen. Murray, Rep. Smith fight for Hanford workers

(Dec. 12, 2018) — Hanford suit a ‘depraved action’ by Trump administration

FROM the WSLC’s 2018 Legislative Report — Safety net strengthened for Hanford workers