WASHINGTON - Just like workers in the United States, Iraqis employed by U.S. contractors in their country can collect workers' compensation insurance — whether they're hurt by a ladder collapse in Baghdad or a car bomb in Mosul.
But in a country where anti-American insurgents can scan the mail, many Iraqis receive their benefits in blank envelopes because a check from the United States can be a ticket to a worker's execution.
"These people can be marked for taking money from Westerners," said Sara Payne, senior vice president for the Rutherfoord Agency. The insurance broker in Alexandria, Va., brings together contractors and insurers.
Hundreds of Iraqis and Americans, or their survivors, are collecting insurance benefits for work-related injuries or deaths. The extension of benefits to worldwide employees of U.S. contractors is not new, but officials working with the program say there's never been a situation comparable to Iraq — where more than 40,000 locals are employed in the middle of an insurgency.
The majority of claims so far have been for traditional on-the-job accidents rather than violence, insurance executives and contractors said.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Labor Department says more than 2,500 claims have been filed. The total includes at least 277 claims for death benefits.
Houston-based Halliburton, which provides much of the logistics for the U.S. military in Iraq, said it has handled more than 1,900 claims for its Iraq operations — 6 percent of them from hostile incidents.
Most Iraqis were not accustomed to filing claims under Saddam Hussein. Those working for subcontractors don't always give their real names. Others move or lose their homes in a war zone. They might not have the proper birth and marriage documents, doctor reports or documentation of job-related injuries.
Keith Flicker, a New York attorney, worked on a death benefit claim after insurgents killed four Iraqis working for American and British companies. The attackers "sent letters to the families saying, 'We're watching you. If anybody else in the family is working for Westerners, we will kill them too,' " Flicker said.
The contractors filed claims on behalf of the widows, but couldn't find them after the threats.
Compensation for total disability is two-thirds of average weekly earnings up to a maximum of $1,047 a week.
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