Tens of thousands of civilian contract workers from poverty-stricken countries were hired to support the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. In case of injury or death, they are supposed to be covered by workers’ compensation insurance financed by American taxpayers. But the program has failed to deliver medical care and other benefits to many foreign workers and their survivors.
By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER
NEW YORK — Rey Torres dreamed of a better life for his wife and five children when he left a neighborhood of wooden shacks and burning trash piles to drive a bus on a U.S. military base near Baghdad.
He hoped to send his children to college and build a new home with the $16,000 a year he earned in Iraq — four times what he could make in the Philippines.
Then, in April 2005, Torres, 31, was killed in an ambush by Iraqi insurgents. His widow and children were supposed to be protected by a war zone insurance system overseen by the U.S. government. They were eligible for about $300,000 in compensation.
But Gorgonia Torres knew nothing about the death benefit and did not apply. When she did learn about the insurance, two years later, it was from a reporter. She has since turned down an insurance company’s $22,000 settlement offer. Her only hope of receiving full compensation is a legal fight that could drag on for years.
“He knew it was dangerous…. He had second thoughts all the time,” she said of her husband. “But he’d say, ‘If I don’t go, there’s no way we’ll be able to survive.'”
Torres was among tens of thousands of civilian contract workers from poverty-stricken countries hired to support the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. In case of injury or death, they are supposed to be covered by workers’ compensation insurance financed by American taxpayers. But the program has failed to deliver medical care and other benefits to many foreign workers and their survivors, a Los Angeles Times–ProPublica investigation found.
An examination of what happened to foreign nationals has uncovered an even more dismal record. Injured workers have gone without medical treatment and compensation because they were never informed of their right to the benefits. Widows and children have not received death payments for the same reason.
The system relies on companies to make employees aware of insurance coverage and to report deaths and injuries to insurers and the federal government. But some employers have shirked those obligations, and the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the program, has done little to ensure compliance, punish violators or reach out to injured foreigners or their survivors.
An analysis of Pentagon and Labor Department records indicates that thousands of injured foreigners have fallen through the cracks.
About 200,000 civilians are working in Iraq and Afghanistan under U.S.-funded contracts. Many are so-called third-country nationals, from countries other than the United States, Iraq or Afghanistan. The rate of reported injuries among these workers is much lower than for Americans doing similar jobs.
Nearly 22,000 injury claims were filed by third-country nationals and American workers from 2003 through 2007. Although they outnumbered Americans by about 2-to-1, the third-country nationals filed just 14 percent of the total claims.
Insurance experts said the numbers suggest that many wounded foreigners never apply for benefits, even though U.S. taxpayers have paid more than $1.5 billion in premiums for the war-zone insurance.
Those who do apply often confront rejections and resistance from insurers. It can take years for them to receive compensation.