Trump tries to deny workers’ comp to irradiated Hanford cleanup workers
Hanford workers | Jackie Johnston/AP

SPOKANE, Wash.—Remember a “feel good” story we told you about earlier this year? About how, after an electoral switch in control of the Washington state senate – where a pro-worker Democrat flipped a former GOP seat – solons passed legislation making nuclear-irradiated workers at the former Hanford nuclear warhead site eligible for workers’ comp?

Well, the GOP Trump regime in the other Washington – Washington, D.C., that is – seeks to undo it. On Dec. 10, Trump’s Justice Department went to U.S. District Court in Spokane to get the judges there to throw the Hanford workers’ comp law out.

And that would throw the disabled workers’ medical payments up for grabs again.

The story actually began in 1942, when the federal government took over Hanford as a site for manufacturing the uranium, and later the plutonium, used for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The feds realized working with those radioactive materials was dangerous, and those workers were covered by various arrangements when they became ill, disabled, and died.

Hanford’s closed, now. It’s arguably the nation’s most-dangerous Superfund site. And the workers cleaning it up are getting sick, too.

But they ran into problems getting workers’ comp: Hanford’s radiation work was secret and doctors need evidence, which the feds don’t provide, to OK workers’ comp claims.

The way around that was to establish a presumption that the workers’ jobs, cleaning up Hanford, produced the respiratory diseases and cancers that qualify them for workers’ comp. That’s what Nick Bumpaous, legislative and political director for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 598, set out to do. He based it on an initiative he learned about from the Fire Fighters.

The bill, HB1723, Bumpaous lobbied for and worked on with two Washington state lawmakers, did just that. The Washington state senate’s GOP leaders kept pigeonholing it — until a special election late last year gave state senate control to the Democrats. The new pro-worker Labor and Industries Committee chair there led the fight for it. The Hanford workers’ comp bill sailed through both houses this year, with huge bipartisan majorities.

Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed it and it took effect. Some 42 former Hanford cleanup workers, suffering from those ills, have used it already to seek workers comp payments. More are expected to do so.

They won’t be able to if Trump has his way.

In an Oct. 31 letter to Inslee, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and state Labor and Industries Director Joel Sacks, Trump’s Justice Department threatened to sue the state on Nov. 30 unless – parsing the legal language – the state dropped its workers’ comp law for the Hanford workers.

HB1723 violates the U.S. Constitution’s “supremacy clause” and “purports to directly regulate the federal government,” said John Gilligan of the federal programs branch of the Trump Justice Department’s civil division.

Gilligan proposed talks and the state said it would talk. But they obviously went nowhere, because Trump’s Justice Department sued Washington state in federal court in Spokane less than two weeks later.

The Trump lawsuit against the state and the workers says the workers’ comp law “subjects contractors” whose firms hire workers to clean up Hanford “to significantly higher costs” than other Energy Department contractors. Energy now runs and is supposed to clean up, Hanford.

The feds also complain the state is sticking them with workers’ comp costs for Hanford workers even if their illnesses don’t relate to the Hanford cleanup. That claim upset Bumpaous.

“The cleanup from nuclear weapons production has left a trail of sick and forgotten workers in its path for decades,” he told The Stand, the online newspaper of the Washington State Labor Council.

Washington working families are performing some of the most dangerous work, not just in our state but in the nation. HB1723 succeeded in correcting the injustices of the workers’ compensation system, and provided protection and support to those who need it the most,” Bumpaous said. He adds the law “reflects 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,” he concluded.

“Hanford workers have to prove the cause of their illness without knowing exactly what chemicals and radiological hazards they had been exposed to,” said Joe Kendo, the state labor council’s government affairs director.

“The Department of Energy can’t – or won’t – disclose the precise nature of those hazards, so sick and injured workers are forced to make the case with one hand tied behind their backs and blindfolded. Worse yet, these for-profit private contractors self-insure their workers’ compensation programs and aggressively fight workers’ claims, hoping they’ll just go away. This makes it even harder for workers to get the treatment and wage replacement they need to heal and return to work.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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