Supreme Court Agrees to Review Washington State Workers’ Compensation Law

The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 10 agreed to review a 2018 Washington state law that makes it easier for sick nuclear contractor employees at the Hanford nuclear reservation to obtain state workers’ compensation benefits.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) requested the review in September 2021, citing both the wording and the scope of the law as concerns.

Under the 2018 state law, sick nuclear workers no longer have to prove that their illness resulted from workplace exposure at Hanford. Rather, the state Department of Labor and Industries must presume that workers’ exposure to radiological or chemical substances at the reservation caused their neurological diseases or respiratory illnesses.

Pictured: A cold winter afternoon as Hanford nuclear reservation workers prepare to remove the core from tank C-107. Photo is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy. 

The state law also presumes that many types of cancer and some limited heart problems are from workplace exposure at Hanford. A minimum of one eight-hour shift at Hanford is required to file a claim, and a worker’s survivors can file after the worker dies.

Among other concerns, the DOJ’s view is that the law’s description of applicable illnesses is too vague.

The DOJ lost its case opposing the 2018 state law before the U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington in June 2019. It also lost its appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals the following year.

Testimony from sick Hanford contractor employees and union supporters convinced the state legislature that Hanford workers need separate rules. They discussed hazardous exposures at the nuclear reservation and the uncertainty surrounding which chemicals a worker may have encountered.

Washington state continues to defend the law, arguing that Hanford contractors have not consistently monitored chemicals, which makes it difficult for a worker to identify a specific incident that caused their illness.

For more information about the Washington state and federal compensation programs and how to apply for them, Hanford workers can go to the Hanford Engagement Center at 309 Bradley Blvd., Suite 120, in Richland, Wash., or call 509-376-4932.

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