The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) administers the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. The Act provides benefits to workers injured in maritime employment on the navigable waters of the United States or in an adjoining area customarily used by an employer in loading, unloading, repairing, or building a vessel. In addition, several acts extend the Longshore Act’s coverage to certain other employees.
Maine is a shipbuilding state and as such many of Maine’s workers are covered under this Federal compensation program. Shipbuilding can be dangerous work and serious injuries can unexpectantly arise. When injuries happen, my clients need an immediate confirmation that medical care will be provided and pay issued while the individual is out of work. Unfortunately, there are often significant delays from the time a claim is brought before the OWCP and the time it is resolved after hearing before a Federal Office of Administrative Law Judge (OALJ).
The OALJ has faced significant budgetary shortfalls for many years. In Maine, we rely on the Administrative Law Judge to travel from Boston several times throughout the year to hear cases of my Maine shipyard worker clients. These same judges also travel to other states such as Rhode Island, Connecticut and Michigan to hear cases. Because the resources at the Boston office are limited, there is a significant backlog of cases. In fact, the Department of Labor anticipates there will be more than 2,100 cases that remain pending by the end of 2014. This number of unresolved cases is anticipated to rise to 2,300 cases by the end of 2015. Claims typically can take a year or more before a responsible party is ordered to make payment to an injured worker.
President Obama has proposed a 12% increase in the funding for these expenses for the next fiscal year. Unfortunately this increased funding may only produce a small improvement in the backlog of Longshore cases. Why? Because the OWCP governs not only Longshore claims but also: claims of contractors overseas working for the US government (Defense Base Act Claims), workers injured on US military installations, claims of injured offshore oil rig workers, and claims of coal workers filing under the Black Lung Benefits Act.
Maine workers deserve to have their claims processed efficiently and quickly. Without increased funding dedicated to the judicial resolution process, more workers will go without the benefits they are entitled to receive, putting greater strain on local and charitable resources trying to pick up for the unexpected loss of a family’s income. My clients deserve better, all Maine workers deserve better.
About the author: Suzanne L. Johnson is an attorney and partner at the workers’ rights law firm, McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at 207-725-5581 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.