Many deckhands lack documentation for spill claim


HOPEDALE, La. (AP) — In the fallout from the BP oil disaster, they’re almost invisible: deck hands and other day laborers who get paid in cash, don’t receive W2 forms, may not file tax returns and have little or no way of proving they are losing income because of the spill.

“We run into them on a daily basis. They’re stuck in limbo,” Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp. in eastern New Orleans, said in a recent interview.

Nguyen said he has encountered hundreds of workers, mostly deck hands, who lack the documentation BP needs from claimants seeking a piece of the $20 billion of the oil giant’s aid fund.

“It’s a very cash-involved industry,” said Nguyen, whose organization formed after Hurricane Katrina to help the Vietnamese community recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Some of the boat captains or boat owners, they sell fish on the side of the road or directly to families. They don’t have records of that.”

Stuart Smith, an attorney handling oil-spill lawsuits, said seeking aid can be intimidating, and some cash workers fear that they’ll face penalties or prosecution for not paying taxes if they come forward.

“Proving that you worked in that capacity is going to be an issue for a lot of these people because they’re not sophisticated businessmen,” Smith said.

That fear may be why it’s hard to find a laborer willing to talk about the problem. Along Bayou Hopedale, east of New Orleans, a group of men sorting crabs at a ramshackle waterside building declined to answer questions recently.

Less than a mile away, Christian Delos Reyes, who until the spill made a living dredging oysters, was helping prepare a boat for cleanup work. He had documented his income and started the BP claims process, he said. But he lamented the fate of others. “A lot of them don’t pay taxes,” he said.

BP requests tax returns for 2007 through 2009, but will work with individuals who want to provide other documentation, including wage loss statements, deposit slips, boat registrations, copies of current fishing licenses and other financial statements, the company said in a written response to questions about the process.

“BP will make every effort to keep claimant information confidential but will meet all of its legal obligations,” the company statement said, adding it will report claims it pays to the IRS.

Ken Feinberg, appointed by the White House and BP to administer the aid fund, didn’t hold out a lot of hope for people who take cash to avoid taxes. Feinberg administered a similar fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I must say under the 9/11 fund, which was all public money, we were not sympathetic to paying claims based on cash-only, no tax returns,” Feinberg said in an interview.

“You go down that road and you’re really opening up this fund to diversion to people who can’t justify the claims,” he said.

Still, he added, President Barack Obama wants money to get to the people who are entitled to it.

“Maybe there’s some compromise we can reach,” he said.

IRS spokesman Eric Smith in Washington said the agency could not comment on the issues faced by workers who lack documentation.

Meanwhile, the seafood industry has organized a charitable corporation to raise money for those who might fall through the cracks of the claims process. The group doesn’t need the documentation required by BP or government agencies.

“We don’t even have an application process,” said Kevin Voisin, the group’s head and an executive with Motivatit Seafood in Houma, La.

Using a database of seafood-related companies in the Gulf region, volunteers are contacting managers and asking which workers need help, either because they have applied for aid that hasn’t arrived yet, lacked the documentation for an application or feared reprisal.

“We don’t need W2s. We don’t need 1040s,” Voisin said. “We know the places that are shutting down. We know the communities.”

As of Thursday, Horizon Relief had raised $55,000 from around 300 donors. Needs and amounts vary but generally, in an area where rents are low, a little money goes a long way.

“Five hundred dollars can make a family pretty stable for a whole month,” Voisin said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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