The Defense Base Act: Coverage for Federal Contractor Employee Injuries

First passed in the World War II era, the Defense Base Act is the federal law requiring workers' compensation coverage for the overseas employees of U.S. government contractors and subcontractors. If a worker falls under one of four distinct categories of employees, he or she is covered, regardless of citizenship status.

Defense Base Act benefits have become important recently because of the heavy use of contractors in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Defense Base Act worker categories are:

  • Anyone privately employed on a U.S. military base or for military purposes abroad or in a U.S. territory or possession
  • Anyone employed by a federal government agency to fulfill a "public work" contract, including a contract for service or construction related to military activity abroad
  • Anyone employed to fulfill a military contract abroad for a U.S. ally under the Foreign Assistance Act
  • Anyone employed abroad by a domestic employer to give "welfare" like entertainment or amenities to U.S. military members

Required insurance benefits must include those for medical care, death and disability, and the injury does not need to happen when the worker is actually on duty. Benefit amounts are based on previous earnings levels, and in a permanent total disability or death case may be payable for the life of the recipient, with annual cost-of-living increases.

Covered employers must either purchase workers' compensation insurance or obtain government approval to self-insure. For the most part, the Defense Base Act uses insurance and other provisions of the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act or LHWCA (covering employees injured working on "navigable waters" of the U.S.).

If an employer fails to secure required Defense Base Act coverage, an injured employee (or his or her survivors if the worker dies) can then sue the employer instead. Failure to procure required insurance under the Act is a misdemeanor for which a company officer may be personally fined or for which he or she may serve time in prison.

The U.S. Department of Labor, through its Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation, enforces and administers the Defense Base Act. The OWCP has two district offices (New York and Honolulu) that administer Defense Base Act claims.

In case of an injury covered by the Act, both the worker and the employer have specific notice requirements with deadlines, including employer notification of its insurer or claims administrator, employee submission of a form to the OWCP and more as the claim evolves. The OWCP oversees legally required payments and medical treatment.

If workers, employers and insurers disagree about coverage, payments or other benefits, the OWCP provides informal dispute-resolution support. If informal resolution is not possible in a given case, any party may ask for an administrative hearing before an administrative law judge from the Office of Administrative Law Judges. An ALJ decision can be appealed to the Benefits Review Board and then to the federal court system.

If you are employed by a government contractor for military purposes and are injured, or if a loved one has lost his or her life in such employment, talk to a workers' compensation attorney with Defense Base Act experience about your options for benefits.