Army depot appeals $49 million asbestos settlement

The Corpus Christi Army Depot has filed an appeal of an arbitrator's decision to award $49 million to 2,000 employees exposed to asbestos for several years.

Although the depot appealed the case last week, both sides will continue to negotiate a settlement, hoping to avoid the potentially costly appeal process, which could take five years to resolve.

Three major labor unions-the American Federation of Government Employees, International Association of Machinists, and National Federation of Federal Employees-filed a grievance against the depot in 1997, charging that employees were exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos in the workplace over the last several years. Exposure to unsafe amounts of asbestos can lead to significant health problems.

The $49 million settlement is a reimbursement in back pay for employees who did not receive the requisite pay increase, known as environmental differential pay, for working in hazardous environments.

According to a spokesman for the Corpus Christi depot, there are "obviously a lot of people interested in this case" for a variety of reasons. Top-level depot staff have been cautious about releasing information to the media due to the ongoing litigation.

The depot is objecting primarily to the arbitrator's embrace of a zero-tolerance policy toward asbestos in the workplace when he ruled in favor of employees. The Army claims that asbestos levels at the depot are in accordance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

However, lawyers for the employees argue that the OSHA standard "does not require proof of actual or even likely injury in order for WG [wage grade] employees to recover" environmental differential pay. The depot has counterattacked by noting that a requirement in the environmental differential pay statute stipulates that working conditions must be unusually severe for employees to receive the pay increase.

The average length of tenure for a depot employee is 17 years. Asbestos-related illness generally takes between 10 and 25 years to develop. Long-term exposure to asbestos increases the risk of illness.

The Army filed the appeal with the Federal Labor Relations Authority. If the agency loses its appeal with the authority, it can still file one with a federal appeals court.

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