BP agrees to speed up payments to workers, others affected by oil spill

Sheila Clark -- whose husband, Donald, was killed in the oil rig explosion -- listens as Sen. Charles E. Schumer speaks at a news conference.
Sheila Clark -- whose husband, Donald, was killed in the oil rig explosion -- listens as Sen. Charles E. Schumer speaks at a news conference. (Alex Wong/getty Images)
By Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty
Friday, June 11, 2010

The Obama administration announced Thursday that oil giant BP has agreed to expedite payments to people and businesses harmed by the widening oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. But that was no cause for celebration for Lance Authement, a fourth-generation Louisiana shrimper who says he will have to shutter his family's seafood plant if help does not arrive soon.

"There's nothing that the White House or anybody else has come out with that's helped us yet," said Authement, who began shrimping when he was 15. "Things are easy to say. It's when you get something done that counts, you know?"

Frustration runs deep in the Louisiana seafood-processing business, where industry leaders say that they don't know of a single company that has received compensation. As money runs out, they say they are facing widespread layoffs and temporary closings that could become permanent.

"Our backs are against the wall," Authement said.

State officials in Louisiana, which accounts for more than half of the claims to date, say they also have been unimpressed with BP's assertions in national ads that it will pay "all legitimate claims." They complain that BP executives have refused to give details of payments and instead have provided only a brief daily "event summary." Last week, Louisiana Attorney General James D. "Buddy" Caldwell resorted to legal action, demanding details in a lawsuit.

In a news conference at the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, federal officials said BP acknowledged that its system of waiting until company books are closed for each month before paying claims "will not work." Officials said the firm promised a "more expedited claims process" that takes into account the ability of businesses to pay expenses for an upcoming month and that shrimpers earn much of their income in May and June.

There is no way to verify BP's announcement that it has paid more than 19,000 claims, totaling more than $53 million.

Gulf residents who have received payments -- many of them a few thousand dollars -- are particularly worried about a lack of information from BP about plans it has for payments to offset continued income loss, officials said.

"Hardworking people should not be forced into poverty by the oil spill," said Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

Data released to The Washington Post by Louisiana officials show that as of June 3, BP had paid more than $25 million in claims in the state, almost all for property damage. Although none of the more than 15,000 individual claims was officially denied, all but one remained classified by BP as "open."

The largest number of claims -- 8,500 -- was filed by people trying to recoup lost wages. Of those, slightly more than 4,000 were paid. The average amount was $2,600.

More than 1,000 claims, averaging $3,800 each, were paid to fishermen who lost income, and more than 1,000 claims were paid to shrimpers.

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