US Supreme Court reverses Washington workers comp law at Hanford nuclear site

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The US Supreme Court has overturned a 2018 Washington state law that gave federal contractors and subcontractors working at a nuclear waste site an easier path to collect workers’ compensation benefits. 

In anticipation of the Supreme Court decision, Washington lawmakers recently amended the 2018 law by clarifying that the relaxed workers’ comp requirements applied to any worker (including state employees) in Washington state who filed a claim for illness they believe came from radioactive waste at Hanford – not just federal workers at the Hanford site.

The case concerns cleanup work at the decomissioned Hanford site in central Washington, which produced plutonium from World War II through the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Cleanup – which is conducted mostly by federal contractors but also private contractors, state employees and federal workers is expected to continue over the next 60 years and require more than 10,000 workers.

The 2018 presumption law made it easier for Hanford federal workers to file for state workers’ comp claims for covered conditions. The Supreme Court ruled that the law discriminated against the federal government by potentially imposing it to pay an additional $17 million to $37 million in claims under the legislation.

“The nondiscrimination principle provides a political check on the State’s ability to impose such laws by ensuring that the State’s own citizens shoulder at least some of the costs,” the court said. “Discriminatory provisions like the one before us contain no such ballot-box safeguard.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that the high court’s ruling has “little practical impact” in the state because of the changes to the workers’ compensation law in March. 

If you have a workers’ comp, L&I, or other employment law claim, contact Emery Reddy. You won’t get better advice.

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