By Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty
Friday, June 11, 2010; A04
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.
Data show that Louisiana residents also are attempting to collect money for a range of other problems -- including damage to trucks, boats, homes and animals, as well as income loss from rental properties or real estate sales.
A $2,500 payment was made to a Louisiana resident who claimed a respiratory ailment. But no money has been paid to people claiming a host of other personal injuries, including headaches (42 claims), nausea (28 claims), eye irritation (16 claims), skin irritation (13 claims) and allergies (one claim). Five claims have been made for "anxiety/stress."
Along the gulf shore, local officials worry that individual payments will not arrive quickly enough to prevent permanent economic damage. Seafood processing plants and icehouses are considering mothballing their facilities, then laying off their most experienced employees. Many say that, given the costs of shuttering and then reopening a plant -- especially without the help of a workforce that may have moved on to other jobs -- any temporary closings may become permanent.
"Closing them could be catastrophic," said Mike Ferdinand of the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority.
Local authorities are trying to persuade BP to pay to keep the electricity on and employees on the payroll, even if there is little seafood to process.
"How long can we hang on? I don't know," said the manager of a major shrimp processing plant in Louisiana, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating BP.
His plant employs 175 people. Some employees have taken payments from BP, the manager said, while others remain on his payroll even though there is no work to be done.
"Right now, I'm just trying to hang on to my key people and see what happens," he said.
Authement, who co-owns a shrimp processing plant in Dulac, said that BP asked for more paperwork before paying his company's claim for lost income, even though production has declined 90 percent.
"I'm losing money every day right now," he said.
In Florida, the economic losses have taken longer to hit home than in Louisiana, according to attorney Tim Howard, who is pressing a class-action lawsuit against BP on behalf of business owners in Florida. But even there, he said, delays could quickly set economic dominoes in motion.
"If claims get resolved in 30 days, that will be fine. If they don't, that's a problem, because people still have to pay their mortgages," Howard said.
Last Saturday, Darryl Willis, a BP vice president, said in a news conference call that the company had committed nearly $85 million through June to cover about 34,000 worker and small-business claims. He said that for small claims, the company has reduced the wait for a check from 45 days to as little as 48 hours.
He said that no claim has been denied and that "we have not had any big disconnects between what people feel they are due" and what they received. If that occurs, he said, "we will address it on the spot."