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Getting compensation shouldn't be so hard for federal workers hurt on the job

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By Joe Davidson
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Working for the federal government should not be hazardous to employees' health.

But when it is, Uncle Sam should not be as stingy as he was made out to be during a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Leaders of employee organizations, including those representing baggage screeners and federal firefighters, provided one example after another of the government's failure to care, either promptly or at all, for federal workers who were injured on the job.

Consider these stories from Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association:

-- On Sept. 11, 2001, Secret Service Special Agent Mike Vaiani ran into the World Trade Center, attempting to rescue those inside. He seriously injured his neck, shoulders and back in the process.

First, the Labor Department's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs lost his file. Then he started getting dunned for unpaid medical bills.

"After enduring this miserable process," Adler told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, "Vaiani stated, 'I would rather run back into the tower while it's on fire than have to deal with the Department of Labor.' "

-- Postal Inspector Bill Paliscak went to the Brentwood postal facility in Northeast Washington when anthrax-contaminated mail was discovered in 2001. Paliscak became ill as a result of anthrax exposure. The compensation office initially denied his claim. It was accepted in May 2002, but not before his credit was ruined and his medical care was disrupted.

-- Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Tim Chard participated in the dismantling of 100 meth labs between 2000 and 2007. In 2008, he began to suffer from pain and other symptoms apparently connected to meth lab toxins. The compensation office rejected his claim, so the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation paid for him to enter a treatment program.

"The common denominator from these horror stories is the OWCP is unable to effectively process claims filed by injured law enforcement officers," Adler said. A denial of a claim, or delay in processing it, can exacerbate medical problems and financially ruin employees, he told the panel, because once they say a health problem is work-related, private insurance will not cover it.

Shelby Hallmark, director of the compensation program, testified before Adler spoke and did not respond to the specific examples Adler offered. Hallmark, in his prepared statement, said his office "is dedicated to promptly adjudicating claims, promptly paying medical bills and claims for compensation."

He told Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) that his office does not make payments while a claim is being adjudicated. For complicated cases, the agency's goal is to decide on a claim within six months, he said.

Of course, a complicated case might be one that involves a complicated and serious ailment that is expensive to fix. A six-month wait could be devastating in those circumstances.

Those complicated cases sometimes involve illnesses, such as cancer, that might have been caused when an employee came in contact with a toxin while working. These cases require lots of detailed medical evidence to establish the link between the illness and the job.

The claims acceptance rate for occupation illnesses was only 52 percent last year, compared with a 90 percent rate for traumatic injuries, such as being cut by work equipment, Hallmark told the panel.

The subcommittee's hearing comes two days after President Obama announced his POWER Initiative, an acronym for Protecting Our Workers and Ensuring Reemployment. He expects the program to reduce federal workplace injuries and cut lost time.

Obama cited more than 79,000 new claims and more than $1.6 billion in workers' compensation payments in fiscal 2009. "Executive departments and agencies can and should do even more to improve workplace safety and health, reduce the financial burden of injury on taxpayers, and relieve unnecessary suffering by workers and their families," he said.

Just before the hearing, the subcommittee held a business meeting where it approved legislation to enhance training for federal supervisors. Under the bill, supervisors would receive training within one year of entering their new positions and every three years after that.

The panel, chaired by Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), also advanced legislation that calls on the Office of Personnel Management to use a different method to calculate payments by the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service to the Civil Service Retirement System. After recalculating the payments, the legislation directs OPM to transfer any Postal Service surplus in payments already made to the USPS Retiree Health Benefits Fund.

Estimates of the surplus range from $55 billion to $75 billion.

Sound off about Sherrod case: Has the U.S. Agriculture Department'shandling of Shirley Sherrod -- firing her based on an edited video clip, then later apologizing and offering her another job -- reaffirmed your confidence that you can be heard by managers in this administration? Or has it made you feel less secure and more careful about what you might do or say?

E-mail your answer to federaleye@washingtonpost.com and include your full name, home town and the agency for which you work. We might include your response in Friday's Washington Post.


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