In One Filipino Town, Workers Injured in Iraq Depend on the Kindness of AIG
LUTOPAN, Philippines — To see the disparities in the U.S. system for taking care of civilian workers wounded in war zones, you need go no further than this old mining town spilling down an island hillside.
Lutopan has sent an untold number of its sons and daughters to work in Iraq, part of the invisible army that daily cares and feeds U.S. soldiers.
One man has been killed. Another two crippled. Under U.S. law, all are eligible for a federally mandated workers compensation program for overseas contractors. But their treatment was far from uniform.
One of the injured received a large pay out. Another was given far less after an insurance adjuster pressured him. And the parents of the man who died received 30 percent less than they were due in benefits.
"Help my family. Help my family," said Maria Borgonia, whose son, Cirilo, was killed in a mortar attack in Baghdad in July 2007. "We are poor people."
The Labor Department, which oversees the program, acknowledged that it had limited resources to handle claims from foreign workers. As a result, the settling of claims was largely "driven" by the insurance industry, the agency said.
"Is it fair? ... Fair is a tough word to apply to a worker's comp system," said Shelby Hallmark, the director of the program. "Would we like (insurance carriers) to be more generous, and say, 'We're going to go ahead and pay because it's probably the case?' Yeah, probably. But they're within their rights."
American International Group, or AIG, which handled the claims of all three workers in Lutopan, declined to comment on individual cases, citing privacy concerns. The company said that it treated all foreign claimants equitably.
"We take numerous extraordinary measures under very difficult circumstances to locate and pay claimants or their beneficiaries," AIG said in a statement.
Prime Projects International, which hired all three men, did not respond to requests for comment.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a boon for jobless workers in Lutopan, a former copper mining town. KBR, the defense contractor based in Houston, used subcontractors who hired thousands of workers from the Philippines to clean toilets and make meals for soldiers.
In 2006, Dubai-based Prime Projects International, a KBR subcontractor, hired three men from Lutopan: Jose Maque, 41, Federico Ebarsabal, 61, and Cirilo Borgonia Jr., 33.
Each signed up for manual labor that paid $7,800 a year under a contract that required work seven days per week, 12 hours per day, according to copies of the work contracts obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The men were making about $2 an hour.
Under a 1940s era law called the Defense Base Act, the men were also covered by workers' compensation insurance. The insurance provides medical care or death benefits to anyone injured or killed while working overseas on a federal contract.
The youngest of five, Cirilo "Jun Jun" Borgonia started working for Dubai-based company in June 2006, driving shuttle buses around the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Although dangerous, Borgonia enjoyed his work. He was given an award by KBR in "recognition for ... outstanding service." He told his family he wanted to become a U.S. soldier.
"I'm not afraid. I like this job. If I get lucky, I'll come back on the plane. If I don't, I'll come back in a box," Borgonia told his sister once.
On July 10, 2007, Borgonia was driving near the famed Assassin's Gate when a mortar hit. Borgonia and a soldier, Army Capt. Maria I. Ortiz, 40, were killed.
Borgonia bled to death, according to his death certificate. A coworker provided the family with photos of the aftermath: a tight spray of shrapnel against a concrete barrier, a pool of blood running toward a gutter, dried in the sun.
Borgonia's sister, Christina, worked in a Filipino call center. Fluent in English and accustomed to making up to 300 calls per day, Christina used her free time to pester Prime Projects, AIG, the company's workers' compensation insurer and the Labor Department.
The Borgonias, who were dependent on their son for income, were entitled to a maximum of $100 a week in benefits under the Defense Base Act — a pittance by American standards, but a substantial sum in the Philippines, where per capita income is about $3,500 per year.
AIG was responsible for paying the benefit. Although the law calls for payments to begin within 14 days of an incident, AIG paid nothing until January 2008, six months later.
Then, an AIG adjuster explained in a letter that the couple would receive $78 a week in death benefits. There was no explanation of why the company reduced the Borgonias' benefit by $22 a week. On a Labor Department form accompanying the letter, AIG simply checked a box "No" to indicate that it was not paying the maximum rate.
Now in their 60s, the couple live in a bare concrete house that slopes down the hill leading to the old copper mine. Inside, a table is ringed with old photos of their son. There is a fluorescent light, a fan, louvered windows and a simple linoleum floor.
Both deeply religious Catholics, the couple rise daily before sunrise for a black rosary service, a Filipino tradition. They walk through town, candles in hand, remembering their dead son as they make their way to the town's small yellow church.
Under the law, the Borgonias could have fought for higher benefits. But the Borgonias said the offer from AIG seemed good enough. Their concern was not about the money, but their son.
"When my son died, I'm no long willing" to live, Cirilo Borgonia, 67, said in broken English. "We died with him."
The carriers' dealings with the wounded is also largely unregulated — and in some ways, more brusque, according to former workers.
Jose Maque was injured in the Green Zone in November 2006 when a mortar round slammed nearby. Red hot shrapnel ripped through his shoulder, neck and back.
Maque was treated at a military hospital and shipped to the Philippines for recovery. He returned to Iraq a month later — he needed the money for his wife and six children — but left for good several months later. The aches in his body, he said, made work impossible.
Maque said it took him three months to fully recover from his injury. Under the law, he could have been paid as much as $1,200 for lost time. He was also eligible to receive medical treatment for any future complications from his injuries.
AIG paid him nothing until June 2007, some nine months after his injury. A local insurance adjuster representing AIG showed up at his door and made Maque a settlement offer.
The adjuster bartered over Maque's shrapnel wounds with techniques familiar to a used car lot. First he offered $750, which Maque refused. The adjuster said he'd ask his superiors for more, Maque said. When he returned, the adjuster offered $1000 — $500 for his lost time and $500 for any future medical treatments.
The adjuster said, "Take it, or you won't get anything at all," said Maque, who bears a long scar running across his neck and a growth on his right shoulder where shrapnel entered. "So instead of nothing, we got something."
During an interview, Maque, a high school graduate, appeared able to speak limited English. He was unable to explain terms in the settlement, written in English, such as "Claimant says he is not under duress." Maque had no attorney during the negotiation and said he did not understand the settlement.
"The lawyer said, 'Do you understand what you're signing?' We didn't, but we said yes," Maque said. "I was worried that if I made trouble, I wouldn't get anything ... I only signed because I needed the money."
Federico Ebarsabal was injured a few months before Maque in a routine workplace accident — also covered by federal workers compensation.
He was doing carpentry work on a fire station at Camp Victory, a sprawling U.S. base south of Baghdad, when he fell off a scaffold in September 2006 and broke his hip.
Ebarsabal was taken to a clinic run by KBR, the largest contractor in Iraq. There, KBR officials told him to return to work. Ebarsabal, however, insisted on further medical care, saying he had continued trouble with his leg.
Six weeks later, he was taken to a hospital in Dubai. There, x-rays revealed that KBR has tried to send him back to work while suffering a complete fracture of his hip bone. Ebarsabal had a hip replacement, and returned to the Philippines for recovery.
"We were like prisoners. We'd work for 12 hours a day, no days off," Ebarsabal said. "We were stuck."
Ebarsabal had worked overseas for foreign companies, and understood the concept of workers' compensation. He also spoke enough English to fill out a claim form, which he did in April 2007.
Months later, the Labor Department sent his form back in the mail with a blue sticky note attached. In English, the note said: "We have no record of this claim. Please resubmit."
Undeterred, Ebarsabal began regular correspondence with the Labor Department, sending letters in fractured English by overseas mail. In September 2007, he noted that he had received nothing: "I hope that before Christmas it will come," he wrote.
Finally, in late November, an attorney representing AIG and Prime Projects, presented Ebarsabal with a settlement for $8,000 — more than eight times that received by Maque. The amount included $6,000 for lost time — roughly equal to the compensation he was due under the law — and $2,000 for future medical care.
Neither AIG, Ebarsabal's insurance company, nor Prime Projects, his employer, would be on the hook for past or future medical care or lost wage compensation, the settlement said.
Ebarsabal said he felt lucky to receive what he got.
"I don't know how to explain it. I really don't know how it happened," he said. "God has been very merciful and generous. I was finding my way in darkness and it finally worked."
War contractors return home with the same scars as soldiers, but without the support.
The Story So Far
Civilian contractors have been an indispensable part of the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have returned home without the support available for troops in uniform.
Tens of thousands of civilians have worked in the two battle zones, delivering fuel, protecting diplomats and translating for troops, among other jobs.
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