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Gulf Coast Workers Seeking Compensation Face Long Waits, Despite Big Promises


The Gulf oil spill has harmed the businesses of thousands of fishermen and other workers. (Flickr/Geoff Livingston)

In the four months since the Gulf oil spill, Jacob Brown’s life has fallen apart. (TWI has changed Brown and the other claimants’ names at their request, due to fear of reprisals for their speaking out.) In May, he lost his job as an oil drilling engineer in Louisiana after the Obama administration imposed a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. He quickly burned through his savings and by mid-summer couldn’t afford to pay rent, buy groceries or support his children.

[Environment1] Now, Brown is living on his mother’s couch in Kansas, five hours from a job he plans to start at an onshore drilling rig in mid-September. He doesn’t have enough money to rent an apartment near the rig. So, the day he starts work, he plans to get up in the middle of the night to drive to the rig for the first month-long stretch.

Brown filed a claim with BP in mid-August for the $12,500 in wages he has lost in the last three months. When Kenneth Feinberg, the independent administrator appointed by the Obama administration, took over the claims process on Aug. 23, Brown filed a new claim that day. He has yet to receive any payment.

Feinberg’s office has said that claims left unprocessed do not have the proper documentation, but Brown says he has not been told to provide further evidence of his economic strife. After pressing staff at the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, he says he was told that his documents had not yet been reviewed. “I’ve given them everything you could possibly want, pay stubs, tax returns, everything. I’ve uploaded them directly to their servers and I’ve faxed them to them. It’s not that I don’t have supporting documents. It’s that nobody has even looked at my documents,” he says.

For Brown and the thousands of other victims of the Gulf oil spill — many of whom have run through savings in the past months — every day they don’t get paid matters. In interviews with Gulf Coast residents that filed claims with the GCCF, two common criticisms emerge. First, claims are taking too long to process. Second, it is difficult to get information about whether claims have been received, processed, approved or rejected. The frustration, which Feinberg himself has suggested is inevitable, underscores the difficulty of compensating oil spill victims quickly — and underscores the massive impact of the oil spill on life in the Gulf.

Feinberg has promised that all individual claims will be processed — accepted or rejected — within 48 hours and all business claims within seven days. Under the process he has set up, claimants have until Nov. 23 to file for emergency payments to cover one to six months of losses. After Thanksgiving, victims of the spill have until 2013 to file a final claim. If they accept the claim, they must sign a document forfeiting their right to sue BP.

A claim cannot be processed until all the documentation has been provided, Amy Weiss, Feinberg’s spokesperson, says. But, a week and a half into Feinberg’s tenure as administrator of BP’s $20 billion compensation fund, progress is slow.

As of August 31, according to statistics provided by the GCCF, Gulf Coast residents have filed more than 35,000 claims. Of those claims, just over 3,800, or 11 percent, have been approved or paid out, for a total of $16.8 million. The majority of the claims received by the facility, 88 percent, have been filed for lost wages or earnings.

Weiss says that the claims that have not been processed — about 89 percent of the claims filed thus far — do not have the proper documentation. Only one claim, Weiss says, has been rejected.

“If an individual claimant has applied for an emergency advance payment and has not received payment, it is likely that the claimant may not have provided sufficient documentation for the GCCF to evaluate the claim,” Weiss says, adding that claimants will be notified if they need additional documentation. “We are literally working 24 hours a day to issue eligible payments as soon as possible.”

But interviews with claimants suggest that, in at least some cases, claims have been delayed due to a lack of resources, rather than a lack of documentation. (Weiss says there are more than 200 staff members working on the claims process.)

Carl Anderson owns two rental properties on Navarre Beach, about 10 miles east of Pensacola, Fla. Since the oil spill, which marred the beaches near his property, every reservation that was booked for the summer has been canceled. Anderson estimates that he’s lost more than $175,000 total, as his units normally rented for $6,500 a week.

Anderson received one monthly payment from BP in May, but has received no further compensation. In hopes of settling his claim quickly, Anderson says he stayed up until midnight the night before Feinberg took over the claims process in order to organize his claim. He resent his documentation to the GCCF both by fax and FedEx and he received confirmation that the facility received the documents on the morning of Aug. 24, he says.

Since filing the claim, Anderson, who filed as an individual, has called every day to follow up. He says he has been told to wait “a few more days” each time. The new process is much more impersonal, he notes, because claimants are not assigned a specific claims reviewer, as they were under the BP process.

“We’ve been left hanging for three months now,” Anderson says. “I’m just a little bitty fish in the sea with two houses. I feel sorry for other businesses. They’ve lost their livelihood.”

Business owners also say they are frustrated by the new claims process. Phillip Johnson, of Clearwater, Fla., says his day spa has lost about $9,000 a month since the oil spill. Though there is no oil near his business, tourism has gone done significantly in the area, where boating is a big part of the economy.

“It’s not that there’s oil here, it’s that people think there’s oil here,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s day spa specializes in a treatment in which customers are wrapped in warm towels in order to lose weight quickly. “Our business has to do with instant weight loss,” he says. “If nobody goes to the beach and throws on a bathing suit and realizes they need to lose waste, they don’t come and see me.”

Johnson filed a claim with BP and received a $2,300 emergency payment. “I was [at a BP claims center] for 45 minutes and I left with a check,” he says. Johnson refiled his claim with the GCCF on Aug. 23 and he says he was told yesterday by a claims reviewer that his claim has not yet been reviewed.

“I think the biggest thing everybody is upset about is that it’s taking longer than BP,” he says. “They can’t even tell you if they have your documents in order.”

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