Hanford workers can soon visit a “one-stop-shop” in Richland to receive guidance and assistance with claims and benefits, free of charge.
The project has been talked about for years, but finally “grew legs” and is scheduled to open April 2 on Bradley Boulevard.
“If somebody doesn’t know who to call and has a Hanford question, this is where they can go,” said Heather Goldie, manager of human resources, technical projects for Mission Support Alliance.
Called the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center, it’s a collaboration between the Department of Energy, Hanford site contractors, Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council and the Central Washington Building and Trades Council. The purpose is to help current and former Hanford employees, or their family members, who may need assistance filing claims or seeking benefits for different programs.
Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 598 political and government affairs director Nick Bumpaous has witnessed the struggles from union members. “We’ve seen an issue with people trying to navigate the workers’ comp system. ‘Is my claim state or federal?’ And, ‘Who do I talk to?”
Goldie is optimistic the new center will provide the solution. “They could go down to this center and talk with our work force resource specialists and get somebody to assist them and connect them with the office who can answer their questions, give them their forms, and help them fill out their forms.”
Three people will be employed full time as work force resource specialists, bringing the knowledge of multiple individuals together under one roof.
“Currently all those programs exist, but when you go see those individuals, you only get the education of what those programs can provide you,” said Calin Tebay, work force resource specialist. “In some scenarios, people with occupational disease or injury may qualify for two or three programs. So with us, they’ll be able to get all those programs, including documentation and education, the follow-up, and a point in the right direction once they determine which program is best for their scenario.”
The official launch of the project came Jan. 1, with a goal to open 90 days later.
“There is no other center like this in the whole DOE complex (nationally), so we’re going to be setting the bar,” Goldie said. The center is managed by Mission Support Alliance, which holds the operating contract through May 2019. But Goldie said future management is also part of the successor’s contract that’s currently out for bid.
Mission Support Alliance could not share a dollar figure for the cost of opening and operating the center, but the federal government is footing the bill through the fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill. U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell worked together to make this a reality for Washington state. Murray is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and saw this center as a key effort to improving worker safety protections at Hanford.
“While continued progress at Hanford is important, it should never come at the expense of workers’ health and safety,” Murray said. “I will fight to make sure the Trump administration does everything in its power to put safety first and provide Hanford workers the health care and benefits they deserve.”
Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, celebrated the passage of House Bill 1723 that helps sick Hanford workers earlier this month.
The new legislation creates a presumption for Hanford nuclear site workers that certain diseases and conditions qualify as occupational diseases for the purposes of industrial insurance coverage.
Haler introduced the bill last year but it stalled in the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee. This year, the bill passed the House 74-21 and the Senate 35-14.
“Knowing that sick Hanford workers will now have more options than before, more hope than before – that is something I’m proud of,” Haler said.
Currently, many former Hanford workers only seek services through town hall meetings typically held a couple of times a year. In addition, those meetings might be held by advocates for only specific programs, which don’t necessarily offer education on every resource available.
“So those folks really have to wait for those meetings that are once or twice a year, and now they’ve got access to that year-round,” Tebay said.
It’s not just increasing access, but offering a professional who has expertise on navigating the systems to make sure a claim or benefits request is processed quickly and accurately.
“Mistakes made can put an application into the abyss and stop their claim, or hold it up for months. It’s a lose-lose for everybody,” Bumpaous said. “For a working family to step into the world of workers’ comp, it’s confusing and intimidating. When you’re sick or injured, the last thing your family needs is red tape.”
The center is also unique in that it is providing all services at no cost to the worker.
A stand-alone computer also will be available for a client’s use to speed up the application process for submissions that may be done online.
“There’s several programs where the advocates helping the claimant will charge for those services, whatever percentage is allowable for the program,” Tebay said. “For this, the claimant or their family members, it’s all free of charge. And there is no other service like that at this point.”
Tebay said he’s seen cases where a claimant has given up thousands of dollars in compensation by hiring a service to assist with the process.
“For many of these people, they need all the money, all the compensation of the program they can get.”
The new center is in the same building as the Hanford Resource Center off George Washington Way.
“We tried to find a central location so people don’t have to come out to Hanford,” Goldie said. “It’s on the Ben-Franklin Transit line, so if people don’t have a car, they can ride the transit there.”
The center’s specialists are looking forward to the April opening, but as a first of its kind program, they have no way of guessing how many clients they will serve.
“I think it’s going to be successful and busy. I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised that we’re going to get a lot of business,” Tebay said.
Clients who may be skeptical about an independent claims process will find a diverse background of specialists who are not judges, but rather there to connect the dots on the programs available.
“We knew if we wanted people to take this seriously, we’ve got to do it with people they trust,” Bumpaous said. “Workers helping workers, members helping members.”
The two union representatives who will be employed at the center were appointed directly by their specific union leadership.
“They are not hired by Department of Energy or contractors,” Tebay said. “I think this is the most independent feel from an office that you’re ever going to get to be able to provide this kind of resource.”
Bumpaous said he’s taken many phone calls from former workers with injuries to claim, asking when this center will open.
The center is expected to launch April 2 with regular hours from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at 309 Bradley Blvd., Ste. 120, in Richland. A website is forthcoming, which will provide links to find forms and resources.