Worker compensation bill gets opposition

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(Host) The Douglas Administration is opposed to a bill that would help state workers in Bennington get workers compensation benefits.

The workers say their building has made them sick. But the administration is concerned that legislation to help with those claims could set a precedent.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) There’s a paradox in the way different parts of state government have handled the Bennington building situation.

Governor Jim Douglas wants to close the building and move the workers as soon as possible. The Health Department has found an unusual number of cases of sarcoidosis. At least seven workers have come down with the rare disease that’s characterized by abnormal inflammation in the lungs and other organs.

But a division of the Buildings Department has denied workers compensation benefits for three state employees.

Chittenden Senator Jim Condos questioned why the department rejected the claims, when other branches of state government have focused on the building as the cause.

(Condos) “At what point do we presume that there’s a problem with the building and that that may be causing this problem. I guess I’m just curious, because we’ve got several agencies of the state saying we got a problem here, but we got another department saying ah but there’s no proof.”

(Dillon) The legislation before the Senate Economic Development Committee would set a legal presumption that the building in Bennington has made workers sick.

Buildings Commissioner Tasha Wallis says the legislation goes too far and could set a bad legal precedent. Wallis was supposed to appear in person. But Wednesday’s epic storm left her car wedged in a snow bank, so she testified by speakerphone.

Wallis said the state is researching the high rate of asthma and sarcoidosis among state workers in Pennington. But she said so far has the state has not found a cause and effect between the building and the disease.

(Wallis) “And hopefully we’ll find out something about the asthma. We don’t know if we’ll find out something about the sarcoidosis. But I think we all are acting in concert. But as you know, there are very many statutes that govern our actions.”

(Dillon) The committee also heard from state employees. As the district manager for the Probation and Parole office in Bennington, David Miner has worked in the building since 1994. He said it took over a year for doctors to diagnose his sarcoidosis.

He described some of his health problems for the committee. He said the symptoms first surfaced on a canoe trip, when he experienced an abnormal heart beat.

(Miner) “In my case the heart was affected. They didn’t find the sarcoid until they were able to surgically go down behind my breast bone to take samples of six lymph nodes that had gotten progressively larger over six to eight month period of time.”

(Dillon) Miner still works in the building. He said the state has denied his request for worker’s comp benefits.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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