PENSACOLA, Fla. June 30, 2010… ..The state’s top labor official wants to know if Florida taxpayers are subsidizing the claims BP is expected to pay to people affected by the oil spill, looking into whether the oil giant is reducing compensation to people already collecting unemployment.
Agency for Workforce Innovation Director Cynthia Lorenzo said Wednesday that she has heard from some workers who sought compensation from BP for wages lost as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that they’d been asked if they were receiving state jobless benefits, and told that if they were, their BP claim would be reduced to reflect state assistance.
Lorenzo said that’s not part of the deal – that BP should be meeting its pledge to pay for damages caused by the April 20 explosion of the rig and subsequent leak that has fouled much of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.
“If they are reducing their lost payment claims we need to know that,” Lorenzo said Wednesday during a meeting in Pensacola of the state’s Oil Spill Recovery Task Force. “We don’t know that for certain yet.”
BP Vice President Darryl Willis, appearing before the task force as BP point man, said he was unaware of any such reductions.
Lorenzo’s query was part of a freewheeling public hearing that included testimony from local businesses and concerns by area lawmakers over the impact of the spill, and of BP payments.
State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said BP’s effort to help fisherman is having an unexpected and unintended consequence – crabs not being harvested, oysters not being picked and charter fishing trips cancelled because the boats are being used to search for oil.
In a strange twist to the question of how BP can best help the area recover from the spill, Patronis, who owns a coastal seafood restaurant, said the influx of money into the region is having a “corrosive effect” that is undermining the region’s historic economic base by paying more for recovery efforts – which are only temporary – than would be paid for the normal work usually done here.
“We’re about to have a train wreck that you are not going to be able to put back on the track,” Patronis told BP’s Willis.
Patronis says it’s getting more expensive to buy oysters, not because the beds are closed, but because many oyster harvesters have filed lost income claims to BP and are making more money working recovery jobs than they could make working the oyster harvest.
Patronis also argued that the charter fishing business is seeing a similar phenomenon. Boats to take out the tourists who are still coming to the region are hard to find, because captains are
being paid up to $2,000 a day to look for oil, Patronis claimed.
“That money BP is providing to the economy of north Florida is awesome, but also you are … taking individuals who typically have a hard-working work ethic … and paying them more not to do what they normally do,” Patronis said.
Willis said BP is trying to walk a fine line of providing businesses and individuals relief without too many hassles, without discouraging them from getting back on their feet.
“We have an obligation to mitigate that damage through our claims process but at the same time, if there is the ability to go out and work, we want people to go out and work,” Willis said. “If you can go out and fish, go out and fish. If you can go out and crab, go out and crab. The money is intended to be a bridge.”
Many business owners said they need the reimbursements to make ends meet until they can figure out what to do next.
While some complained about too much money, others said BP still isn’t operating efficiently enough.
Jeff Taggart, owner of the Pensacola Beach Marina, said he has lost nearly all of his charter boat slip rental business but did get hired by a BP subcontractor to provide fuel for the vessels.
After nearly a month, though, Taggart has yet to be paid for the fuel, the bill for which last week topped $25,000. To make ends meet, his laid off 12 employees and dropped property and health insurance and is about to be late in filing his workers’ compensation payment to the state, which was due Wednesday.
“If they need some help getting this done, I’ve written tens of thousands of dollars of checks in my life,” Taggart said. “I’ve distributed payments for a long time. I’m more than willing to volunteer to make this happen for everybody.”