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AFL-CIO enters widows’ dispute

West Virginia’s workers’ compensation provider should scrap its policy, created two years ago, that denies benefits to widows or widowers after their spouses would have reached retirement age, the president of the state AFL-CIO said Friday.

“Shame on them for making this policy behind closed doors,” Kenny Perdue said during a media conference at the state Capitol. “And shame on them for breaking the law.”

West Virginia law says workers’ compensation benefits must be paid to “a dependent widow or widower until death or remarriage of the widow or widower, and any child or children dependent upon the decedent until each child reaches 18 years of age.”

The policy from BrickStreet Mutual Insurance, the state’s new workers’ comp provider, also would affect widows of the 16 miners killed at the Sago Mine, the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine and two Boone County mines earlier this year.

Several widows attended Friday’s media conference. Their husbands died from mining accidents, mesothelioma or chemical poisoning.

Betty Sweeney of Belmont said her husband died from benzene that poisoned his blood while he worked as an accountant for American Cyanamid, now Cytec Industries. She said Bill Sweeney was 76 when he died from acute myelogenous leukemia in May 2004.

During the 32 years her husband worked at American Cyanamid near Willow Island, he was exposed to benzene that contaminated the plant’s drinking water, showers and floors, Betty Sweeney said.

“They gave me $5,000 in funeral and death benefits. That is all,” she said. “Now, I am afraid I will have to sell my home.”

Workers’ Compensation Commission officials issued the new internal policy on March 10, 2004. It meant the agency no longer had to pay survivors’ benefits after a deceased worker would have reached 70, or after that worker would have reached 65, if benefits were awarded before 2003.

BrickStreet was created by the state when West Virginia switched to a private workers’ comp system on Jan. 1.

On Friday, Perdue challenged Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline, who oversees BrickStreet, to enforce existing laws that provide benefits to spouses and families of workers killed on the job.

“It’s her job to act immediately,” he said. “Have we misplaced our trust by putting our faith in the insurance commissioner?”

“The [Manchin] administration is looking at this issue very carefully. It is a high priority for us,” Cline said Friday. “From a legal perspective, we believe we should wait for it to work its way through the process. It is of great concern to the administration.”

About 15 state legislators attended Friday’s media conference.

“Many of us voted on three new Workers’ Compensation bills in recent years,” said Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion. “Not one time did we think we were voting to cut off benefits to widows or widowers.

“People who want to cut those benefits care more about the bottom line than they care about human life.”

Delegate Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, said, “In 2003, we were never told this would be an issue. BrickStreet created this law.”

Four neighboring states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Kentucky — provide lifelong benefits to surviving spouses under their workers’ compensation programs, Webster said.

Kathy Sweet of Ansted began collecting widow’s benefits after she lost her husband William in a mining accident on May 12, 1995, when he was 54.

“Back then, they told me I would have benefits for the rest of my life,” Sweet said Friday. “Now they told me I will lose them in December.”

On Friday, Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw filed a motion before the West Virginia Supreme Court asking justices to intervene in the cases of widows now before them.

The petition states, the “sole issue presented is an issue of law” about whether “death benefits [will be] paid to dependent widows and widowers until their remarriage or death....

“While the Legislature has made significant changes in compensation law over the past decade, it has never touched the language affording protection to widows and widowers.”

McGraw’s petition asks the Supreme Court to take immediate action on the appeals filed by widows.

To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use e-mail or call 348-5164.


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