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The former Wah Chang plant in Millersburg is covered as an atomic weapons employer under a government compensation law for workers who got sick from radiation exposure related to the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The United Steelworkers have filed an unfair labor practice complaint against ATI Specialty Alloys and Components, also known as Wah Chang, over the company’s refusal to verify employment for workers who might qualify for benefits under a government compensation program.

More than 200 current or former Wah Chang workers or their survivors have received more than $35 million in cash and medical benefits so far under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. The EEOICPA was established to help people who contracted certain radiation-induced cancers or other illnesses while working for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

To qualify for benefits, people must prove they worked for a covered employer. The Wah Chang metals refinery in Millersburg is covered because of a contract it had in the early 1970s to reprocess depleted uranium for a federal defense contractor.

The company used to routinely provide employment verification for free, but a few months ago it outsourced the task to a division of the credit reporting firm Equifax. Workers are now directed to a website and instructed to fill out an online form to request employment verification.

The process requires a fee, and many people find the website so confusing they ultimately give up, according to Garry Steffy, a former Wah Chang employee and Steelworkers union member who advocates for atomic weapons workers.

On Aug. 8, United Steelworkers Local 6163 filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing ATI Wah Chang of unfair labor practices for changing its verification process without negotiating with the union to amend the collective bargaining agreement for the Millersburg plant, which employs about 1,000 people.

Steve Eddings, president of the Steelworkers local, declined to discuss the complaint, saying it was too early in the process.

“It is in the works, but we’re not there yet,” Eddings said.

“It would be putting the cart before the horse a little bit.”

Steffy welcomed the union's participation and added he thinks the complaint is justified.

"It's changing people's job (conditions) without negotiating," Steffy said. "It puts a burden on employees."

The verification issue was a major topic of discussion at an Aug. 24 meeting on the atomic workers compensation program held at an Albany hotel. The meeting included staff members from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation, personnel from the division’s Seattle District Office and Hanford Resource Center and representatives of U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation have been pressuring the Labor Department to do more to help affected workers and their families, and Rep. Peter DeFazio recently called on Wah Chang to resume employment verification and provide contact information for former employees who may still be unaware of the compensation program.

About 50 people attended the Albany meeting, including some who were previously unaware of the compensation program, according to Steffy. Among those applying for EEOICPA benefits, he said, were people who worked at the Hanford Nuclear Site in southeast Washington and the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Albany, both covered employers under the program.

Nationwide, the program has paid out more than $12.8 billion in compensation and benefits to atomic weapons workers or their survivors.

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Albany Democrat-Herald reporter Jennifer Moody contributed to this article. Gazette-Times reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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