Some Pacific Northwest federal dam workers hurt on the job say the federal compensation program wastes time and money, in some cases leaving them permanently disabled

click to enlarge Some Pacific Northwest federal dam workers hurt on the job say the federal compensation program wastes time and money, in some cases leaving them permanently disabled
Federal workers, like those who work at the Dalles Dam (pictured), filed more than 182,000 injury claims in fiscal year 2022.

Two days before Christmas last year, Jim Karney was headed into work as a power plant operator at the Albeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River in Idaho when he slipped on a patch of ice in the parking lot and injured both of his shoulders.

Between delays for the holidays, the pandemic and federal workers' compensation approvals, he couldn't get an MRI scheduled until mid-February so a doctor could properly diagnose his injury.

In the time that had passed, his torn rotator cuff had recessed into the muscle on his left shoulder, leaving no way to fix the loss of strength in his dominant arm.

"This sucks. I'm left-handed," Karney says. "It's not Earth-ending, but it is life-altering."

But his troubles were far from over. On top of dealing with his health, he learned that filing a claim through the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs is painful in its own way. Despite trying to ensure his forms were submitted properly after surgery on his other shoulder, his pay was delayed for weeks as his employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, didn't submit the information exactly how the compensation office requested it.

"If a claimant's going to sit back and do nothing, then they're going to get nothing," Karney says of the process. "It's a mess. You totally feel alone, you know? ... They've got to acknowledge a systemic issue and really help people out."

Karney is far from the only hydropower worker to struggle with the compensation program. In the Corps' Northwestern District, which includes about 5,500 employees across 14 states, there are roughly 300 open workers' compensation claims this year, according to the district's human resources department.

Several Pacific Northwest dam workers injured in recent years say the employee-driven compensation process has resulted in poor health care. After workplace accidents caused by everything from faulty welding to icy walkways, some faced months- or yearslong delays that made it difficult to find a surgeon willing to operate, or resulted in permanent injuries.

Even when a work injury was clearly documented, some needed repeated appointments to get a medical professional's detailed narrative showing their injuries resulted from their accident. Others were told to use private insurance for their needs, even though private insurers typically won't cover workplace accidents.

Above their own pain and suffering, some are frustrated that taxpayers may foot even higher bills — some of the publicly paid employees rely on tax-free workers' compensation checks during recovery or disability.

"I think this problem is nationwide, I think it extends everywhere," says Charles "Mark" Wall, who works at the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River and serves as a union representative. "These accidents are unfortunate. They happen, and when they do, the employee is screwed."

DEBILITATING INJURIES

Anthony Perry, an electronic craftsperson at the Dalles Dam, slipped on the ice in 2018 on his way into work, landing on his coffee thermos and injuring a disc in his back.

Perry says it took more than three years before he could get surgery, due to delays getting federally approved scans and appointments, and trouble finding a surgeon to work with him.

"The willingness of someone to take your case diminishes because the chances of your full and successful recovery begin to diminish over time," Perry says.

There's also Josh Adams, a powerhouse electrician at the Dalles who was injured during a training exercise in July 2021. It would take months to realize he had a herniated disc, and he didn't get surgery until September this year. Adams says he had repeated medical visits, at times because he wasn't aware of specific forms he needed a doctor to sign.

"My employer didn't give me a checklist" of required forms, Adams says. "Everything was trial and error on my part."

Wall, the union rep, knew their stories but it was his own workplace injury in June that really opened his eyes to how complicated the learning curve is once an employee is injured.

Wall faced multiple coverage denials, from fighting to get scans to needing his doctor to explain how the tear in his shoulder was related to his accident, which was initially diagnosed as a strain.

Wall ultimately emailed his chain of command about his case, noting that others have struggled to get timely health care. His surgery was approved a month after his commander got involved.

"I don't know what they're doing or why they're denying these cases, but they've actually got people that are refusing to even file a claim through them because it's just taking forever," Wall says. "They're going through their own insurance. They're lying about the injury and to their own doctors so that they can get the injury repaired, and that's just not right."

The Corps no longer uses human resources to help employees file claims with the Department of Labor. Instead, since 2015 they've directed injured employees to the Army Benefits Center in Kansas, which is supposed to pair workers with an injury compensation program administrator, says Eric Dehnert, human resources director for the Corps' Northwestern Division.

"It's been over nine months. The surgeon told me that there's really nothing he can do at this point, the nerve damage is permanent."

tweet this

"Ultimately the employees are responsible for initiating claims, and first and foremost, letting their supervisor know so they are aware a claim is going to be filed," Dehnert says. "They're assigned a [benefits center] administrator once they initiate the claim, and then that person will work with the employee or supervisor to make sure everything is filed appropriately."

Multiple injured workers said that once they got in touch with the benefits center, things worked smoother. But employees weren't always automatically paired with someone.

Pete Hobart, a power plant mechanic whose back was injured at the Dalles Dam, was hammering equipment in February when he suddenly had stabbing pain in his back and his leg went numb. He was checked at urgent care, got an MRI and had a surgical consultation within a week of his injury. He learned a disc in his spine had splintered and pinched his spinal cord, causing the numbness in his right leg, but it should be operable.

"I thought everything was going great," Hobart says.

But workers' compensation didn't accept his claim until March, under a "non-billable medical code," he says. Over the next few months, he and his wife repeatedly called his claims examiner at the Department of Labor, leaving voicemails that wouldn't be returned for a week or more.

He set a surgery date by late summer, but then got a call: Workers' compensation needed a second medical opinion. He was told near the end of September that appointment would take less than 30 days for the federal office to schedule. As of late November that still hadn't happened.

"This whole process, I don't understand why it's taking so long," says Hobart's wife, Terena. "Watching him suffer and go through this pain, that's not right. This should be done in a timely manner, not almost a year later."

Meanwhile, Hobart says he's pretty much given up hope.

"It's been over nine months," Hobart says. "The surgeon told me that there's really nothing he can do at this point, the nerve damage is permanent."

Hobart says he didn't hear from the benefits center until he sent an angry email to the federal workers' compensation office asking his claims examiner to answer their phone and do their job.

"I think a big part of it is that nobody really knows how the process is supposed to work," he says.

'STRUGGLE BUS'

Jon Erickson was injured in 2014 when steel plates weighing nearly a ton broke through a faulty bracket and fell on him, crushing many small bones in his ankles and feet and shattering one of his knee caps.

For Erickson, a mechanic at the Chief Joseph Dam at the time, the accident landed him in the hospital for five days, during which time a supervisor opened a claim for him.

"The day after I was discharged I had a medical appointment and I get a phone call from the doctor's office saying, 'Hey, we can't see you. ... We called [the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs], and they said your case file is closed,'" Erickson says. "For me being a well-paid, knuckle-dragging mechanic ... I don't know what the hell OWCP is or any of this other stuff."

He was put in touch with a Corps of Engineers human resources staffer to help him through his claim. But it took months, and hiring an outside attorney, to successfully argue that his injuries were not "insignificant." The 47-year-old remains on workers' compensation payments with permanent disabilities.

"Somebody needs to be there to help out the employee," Erickson says, arguing that no amount of video training will prepare employees for the process of filing a claim.

Antonio Rios, director of the division that handles workers' compensation claims from all federal employees (from postal workers to dam workers), says that in 2020 the government started requiring all injury claims to go through an online portal, which was meant to help streamline the process. In fiscal year 2022, the office received more than 182,000 injury claims, he says, and each online file's documents can be viewed by employees in real time.

"We rely on those federal agencies to make sure they disseminate this information to their workforce," to ensure they're empowered to use the online portal, Rios says.

Corps spokesman Matt Rabe says the Corps does train supervisors for accident procedures, but at locations with few employees, they may not have to deal with those claims often enough to know how to help.

"Our bottom line philosophy is that we take care of our people," Rabe says.

Dehnert, the Corps human resources director, says that employees facing challenges should reach out through their chain of command to ensure they can get help with delays.

"If we don't hear about these challenges, we can't seek a resolution," Dehnert says.

But for employees who've had to become compensation experts while advocating for their own care, it's frustrating that each agency doesn't have a point person who can help with claims.

"When you have signatures from your supervisor and everybody agrees that yes, this was an on-the-job injury, yes, this is legit, why am I still fighting for myself?" says Adams, who hurt his back. "They don't want people getting hurt at work. People don't want to get hurt at work. But if you do, let's make it as painless and as stress-free as possible. What I've experienced, and what I've heard from others on my project, is it's exactly the opposite of that. It's been a struggle bus the entire way through." ♦

Editor's Note: This story was updated Dec. 2 at 1:54 pm to more accurately describe how Anthony Perry was injured.

Mardi Bras

Feb. 1-March 3
  • or

About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...