If you are a federal employee hopefully you don’t know what “OWCP” stands for. If you do, you could have been forced to deal with them, and your experience may or may not have been a positive experience.
Many federal workers have been pleased with the services provided by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, but too many stories from others are truly sickening.
On BuzzFeed you can find articles titled, for example, “Putting ketchup on more than half of these foods is a federal crime — are you guilty?” (for real). But an offshoot, named BuzzFeed News, actually writes serious articles about news of the day. They even have a reporter assigned to cover the White House. Yesterday they published a long thoroughly researched piece about how some wildland firefighters injured on the job have been profoundly mistreated and ill served by the OWCP.
If a firefighter is injured while working, or becomes ill on the job, OWCP is required to do everything they can to make them whole again, including covering medical and rehab expenses so they can get back to work without wiping out their bank accounts.
Their Mission Statement:
"The Mission of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs is to protect the interests of workers who are injured or become ill on the job, their families and their employers by making timely, appropriate, and accurate decisions on claims, providing prompt payment of benefits and helping injured workers return to gainful work as early as is feasible."
The BuzzFeed News article describes numerous examples of firefighters who were seriously injured while working, then confronted with huge medical bills. Some were being hounded multiple times a day from bill collectors demanding money that should have been paid by OWCP. Firefighters’ credit cards have been maxed out and credit ratings destroyed. Injured firefighters have routinely been reduced to setting up GoFundMe pages and depending on grants from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Rehab has been discontinued too soon. All because OWCP is incompetent or because their funding has been reduced to the point where they can’t hire enough staff to “protect the interests of workers who are injured or become ill on the job.”
One of the more recent, of many examples in the article is what has happened to Michelle Koch Hart, the widow of Tim Hart, a smokejumper who died after being injured on the Eicks Fire in New Mexico in May of this year.
Here is an excerpt from the BuzzFeed News article:
“Today, she’s still battling with federal agencies, trying to prove the facts around her husband’s death to recoup money. It’s been a maze of talking to case managers who send her to different departments, calling 1-800 numbers that lead nowhere, digging up records, and refiling paperwork that apparently never went through. Some of the claims can’t be submitted until the Forest Service investigation into Tim’s death is completed, and she has no idea when that will be. The Forest Service told BuzzFeed News that “reviews of fatalities can be a lengthy process.” This month, she got an unexplained bill from the Department of Agriculture for $1,030, due Dec. 9. She has no idea what it’s for, and when she tried to find out, she said, the agent could not talk to her because she was not Tim.
” “It’s very traumatizing, lonely,” she said. “There’s no one person in the federal government who is helping me. People don’t know who I should talk to. I have to do everything on my own, but I still have so many unanswered questions. The system is broken.”
“The US Forest Service, which oversees the large majority of the country’s wildland firefighters, has known for more than a decade that its employees have struggled to navigate the workers’ compensation filing system, get claims approved, and have their medical needs paid for, according to the documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News. They give insight into how many top officials, including the Forest Service’s current director, were not only aware of these widespread problems, but had been discussing their frustrations about the process internally for years.
“Leadership in the Forest Service failed to do a damn thing to address our issues with OWCP despite us repeatedly asking and offering solutions,” Buddy Byrd, a former safety and occupational health manager for the Forest Service’s Region 6, which spans Oregon and Washington, told BuzzFeed News. “OWCP is a piece of a bigger systemic failure on behalf of the US Forest Service.”
The federal agencies that employ firefighters and forestry technicians, need to quadruple their efforts to force OWCP to process the claims of the injured quickly and fairly.
They could consider assigning a human resources person to every injured employee who can troubleshoot problems caused by the OWCP. They should not be left alone and victimized a second time for the injury they suffered while serving their country fighting wildfires.
Upon the death of a firefighter the agencies need to figure out a way to quickly produce enough documentation to satisfy the OWCP that they were killed on the job in the line of duty.
Congress needs to appropriately fund the OWCP so they have staff capable of serving the needs of injured firefighters, and their spouses.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben and Tom.