A concentrated oil burn near Venice, La., in May (Pic by Deepwater Horizon Response)

As the deadline for filing emergency payments approaches, claimants turned away by the oil spill compensation fund are hoping to find relief when the next phase of the process begins next week.

Thousands of claims remain in limbo as the fund weighs difficult policy decisions about whom should get paid, and complaints of inconsistencies and unexplained denials continue to mount.

Last week I reported on the case of Janet, an oil spill claimant who works for a company that sells tourism advertising. (She asked that we not use her last name so as not to affect her claim.) Janet noticed that many of her coworkers who received checks from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility were classified as working for an “advertising agency,” while she and others who got denied were listed as working for a “communications business.”

The “claim details” information that allowed her to piece together that fact is no longer available on the facility’s website. It’s been down all week, according to Myron, another denied claimant who works for the same company and who was also classified as an employee of a “communications business.”

Amy Weiss, a spokeswoman for the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, explained that the documents were taken off the site because they were “not complete and not completely accurate, as those descriptions are entered at the time of input and are not necessarily representative of the individual’s occupation.”

Myron, who asked that his last name not be used because he was worried about affecting his claim, had his workweek reduced from five days to four last year, as tourism dropped during the recession. He and his colleagues were expecting to have their hours and wages restored this year, as sales began to pick up.

Then the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April. As contracts were canceled and sales dropped, the company was forced to put off plans to restore his pay.

Many employees, including some with circumstances similar to Myron’s, have had their claims paid. He said he sent in his documentation in September, and received a denial notice a month later. It was the same generic letter received by Janet, which informed him that he is still eligible to file a final claim.

Without the pay increase he had been expecting, he said, bills have been piling up. As he put it, in his case, “time is of the essence.” Why would someone falling behind on payments not qualify for emergency relief from the facility? And why would he get denied, while his coworkers got paid?

Claimants receiving far less money than they requested and being asked to file final claims (which would require them to wave their right to sue BP) inspired Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s to describe the process as “extortion”:

“If you have the capacity to turn them down with no explanation and make them sign away their right to sue, that’s extortion,” Riley said.

This week, claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg responded to that criticism, announcing that claimants will have other options:

Feinberg said that his Gulf Coast Claims Facility will begin a second round of interim payments next week. In addition, by filling out a separate form, people who think Feinberg’s process shortchanged them can ask for additional money.

Neither process, he said, requires a person to sign away the right to sue BP PLC when accepting the money. And that, Feinberg insisted Tuesday, means he is not guilty of extortion, an accusation leveled by Alabama Gov. Bob Riley last week.

“If I’ve made a mistake, if I haven’t treated them fairly, I will give them a supplemental check,” he said. “I don’t want them to feel like they’re visiting the dentist’s office.

“It’s not extortion,” he said. “They do not need to waive their right to sue.”

He also said claimants would get explanations for how their claims were calculated.

Feinberg had told Florida officials last month that the fund would likely allow claimants to seek interim payments that wouldn’t require them to waive their right to sue, a provision called for by state Attorney General Bill McCollum, who argued that such payments were called for under the Oil Pollution Act.

A statement on the claims facility’s home page now reads:

If a claimant’s application for an Emergency Advance Payment was denied, the claimant may still submit a claim for Interim or Final Payment. The GCCF will consider all arguments and materials submitted with a claim for Interim or Final Payment regardless of whether an Emergency Advance Payment was denied.

The Nov. 23 deadline for emergency claims is just days away. Feinberg is expected to release a protocol detailing the procedures for final and interim claims. Whether  claimants like Myron will fair better under the new process remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, their bills are coming due.

Have you filed an oil spill claim? How are you faring in the process? Share your story: travis@seofive.com.

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