Friday, August 10, 2001

Ailing workers' benefits received

By Lori Burling
The Associated Press

        PADUCAH, Ky. — With knees trembling, Clara Harding clutched a $150,000 benefit check Thursday as U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao presented the first payment from a workers' compensation program for sick nuclear workers.

        “I haven't slept in three days, and I was up at 4 a.m. this morning,” said Mrs. Harding. Her husband, Joe, died more than 20 years ago after being exposed to toxic levels of uranium at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

        “I'm grateful and relieved,” said Ms. Harding, 78. “But I'm so tired and sleepy.”

[photo] U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao presents Clara Harding with a commemorative plaque at the Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center.
(Associated Press photo)
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        The Department of Labor began accepting claims July 31. The $150,000 lump-sum payments will go to former workers who have certain types of cancer and who worked at plants before 1992. If the worker has died, the money will go to a surviving spouse and, in some cases, to surviving children.

        “There is no more poignant example of how people can transform their trials into triumphs than the tender story of Joe and Clara Harding,” Ms. Chao said after the presentation.

        Joe Harding was among those who pressed the Energy Department to acknowledge workers were getting sick from exposure to hazardous bomb-making components.

        Before his death from cancer in 1980, his bones were found to contain up to 34,000 times the expected concentration of uranium. Yet Mr. Harding was denied compensation because official records showed he was exposed to only small levels of radiation.

        Last fall, Mrs. Harding was among dozens of sick workers, government officials and community members who testified before Congress for a legislative proposal that became known as the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act.

        At a hearing in Washington, Mrs. Harding said in order to pay for her late husband's remaining medical bills she had to sell her house and begin baby-sitting part-time.

        “It was Clara's moving testimony that tipped the scales in favor of passing the bill,” Ms. Chao said during the presentation at the new Labor Resource Center in Paducah.

        Ms. Chao opened the center soon after the program came under her care this year. The center in one of several offices nationwide to help people file claims.


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