Breathless and Burdened

Published — March 6, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

White House seeks to chip away at severe Labor Department judge shortage, case backlog


Former shipyard worker James Sawyer had both lungs transplanted this year after developing hard-metal disease, an ailment that is virtually always work-related. Sawyer says the shipyard has refused to pay his medical expenses in violation of a Labor Department settlement. (Hannah Peterson/Center for Public Integrity)

Chipping away at an acute problem highlighted by the Center for Public Integrity in December, the White House is seeking an additional $2 million for the coming fiscal year to hire 10 employees in the Department of Labor’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ).

The final installment of the Center’s “Breathless and Burdened” series revealed that the number of Labor Department judges, who hear a wide range of workers’ compensation, immigration, wage and whistleblower cases, has fallen to 35 nationwide, from 41 in early 2013 and 53 a decade ago. The department’s caseload, meanwhile, is soaring, forcing some sick and injured workers to wait years for benefits.

President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget would add 10 people to the OALJ, though it’s unclear how many would be judges and how many would be support staff. The proposal comes on the heels of a Feb. 18 letter to the White House from six members of Congress, who complained of “untenable delays in adjudicating claims, such as claims under the Black Lung Benefits Act and alleged violations of employment law. These delays directly and severely impact the lives of workers throughout the country, placing an undue financial and emotional burden on the affected individuals and their families.”

The lawmakers said a total of 11,325 cases were pending in the OALJ in fiscal 2013 — nearly double the number from 10 years earlier. They cited an April 2013 memorandum, made public by the Center, from Chief Judge Stephen Purcell to then-Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris. Purcell wrote that “we are fast reaching a point where the productivity of this Office will sustain a significant downturn from which we will not likely recover for years to come.”

In a statement Thursday, Labor Department spokesman Jesse Lawder wrote that if the agency gets the requested budget increase, it will “use the resources in the most efficient manner to process cases and will make that decision once funding is provided by Congress. The Labor Department is committed to resolving compensation claims for workers and their families, and that includes alleviating the backlog of cases before administrative law judges.”

Paul Mapes, a retired judge in California, speculated by email that if 10 positions are added to the OALJ “it’s more likely to be three or four more ALJs and six or seven more legal techs and law clerks. Also, this is just the Administration’s request to Congress, and already some are saying the entire Obama Administration budget is ‘dead on arrival.’ Still, it’s a step in the right direction.”

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