Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.

Since 2010, Berkes has focused mostly on investigative projects, beginning with the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in which 29 workers died. Since then, Berkes has reported on coal mine and workplace safety, including the safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine, other failures in mine safety regulation, the resurgence of the deadly coal miners disease black lung, and weak enforcement of grain bin safety as worker deaths reached record levels. Berkes was part of the team that collaborated with the Center for Public Integrity in 2011 resulting in Poisoned Places, a series exploring weaknesses in air pollution regulation by states and EPA. In 2015 and 2016, Berkes collaborated with ProPublica on Insult to Injury, a series of stories about a "race to the bottom" in workers' compensation benefits across the country, which won the IRE Medal from Investigative Reporters & Editors, the nation's top award for investigative reporting.

Before moving to the Investigations Unit, Berkes spent a decade serving as NPR's first rural affairs correspondent. His reporting focused on the politics, economics, and culture of rural America. Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reported on the stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005 and 2006, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina, emphasizing impacts in rural areas. His rural reporting also included the effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate among troops from rural areas. Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on presidential and congressional elections.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. His reporting in 1998 about Salt Lake City's Olympic bid helped transform a largely local story about suspicious payments to the relatives of members of the International Olympic Committee into an international ethics scandal that resulted in Federal and Congressional investigations.

Berkes' Olympic and investigative reporting have made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others.

In 1981, Berkes became one of NPR's first national reporters and was based in Salt Lake City, where he pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He traveled thousands of miles to every corner of the region, driving ranch roads, city streets, desert washes, and mountain switchbacks, to capture the voices and sounds that give the region its unique identity.

Berkes' stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition, and he has served as a substitute host of Morning Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

An easterner by birth, Berkes moved west in 1976, and soon became a volunteer at NPR member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. His reports on the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens were regular features on NPR and prompted his hiring by the network. Berkes is sometimes best remembered for his story that provided the first detailed account of the attempt by Morton Thiokol engineers to stop the fatal 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Berkes teamed with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling for the report, which earned a number of major national journalism awards. In 1989, Berkes followed up with another award-winning report that examined NASA's efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

In 2016, Berkes revisited the 1986 Challenger story with an update on one of the booster rocket engineers who tried to stop the Challenger launch and who was an anonymous source in the Berkes-Zwerdling report. The engineer, 89-year-old Bob Ebeling, was frail and in hospice care when he told Berkes that he still shouldered guilt for the deaths of the Challenger astronauts. The resulting story prompted hundreds of NPR listeners and readers to write supportive messages, which helped ease Ebeling's guilt. He died a few weeks later – at peace, his family said.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, the Mormon faith, western water issues, mass shootings, and more. His work has been honored with more than 20 major journalism awards, including those given by the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, the Online News Association, the National Press Club, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, the UCLA Anderson Loeb Awards, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes also won four Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative, sports, and online audio reporting.

Berkes has trained news reporters in workshops across the country and served as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In 1997, he was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University.

West Virginia's Democratic candidate for governor is a billionaire, a philanthropist and a resort and coal mine owner who cites his business and mining experience as major attributes as he seeks to lead his home state out of a severe budget and economic crisis.

"I am not a career politician; I am a career businessman," wrote Jim Justice in an April 5 op-ed that appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

A "race to the bottom" in state workers' compensation laws has the Labor Department calling for "exploration" of federal oversight and federal minimum benefits.

"Working people are at great risk of falling into poverty," the agency says in a new report on changes in state workers' comp laws. Those changes have resulted in "the failure of state workers' compensation systems to provide [injured workers] with adequate benefits."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Injured workers face "inherent conflict of interest," barriers to benefits, "unequal treatment," limited appeals and little to no independent oversight when employers opt out of state-regulated workers' compensation, according to a new study.

An injured worker featured in an NPR/ProPublica investigation of the opt-out alternative to workers' compensation has settled with the company that denied her medical care and wage-replacement payments after an incident at work.

U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez says his agency will use its "bully pulpit" to strike at what he calls "a disturbing trend" that leaves workers without medical care and wage replacement payments when they are injured on the job.

In an interview with NPR, Perez also confirms a Labor Department investigation of an opt-out alternative to state-regulated workers' compensation that has saved employers millions of dollars but that he says is "undermining that basic bargain" for American workers.

Bob Ebeling spent a third of his life consumed with guilt about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. But at the end of his life, his family says, he was finally able to find peace.

"It was as if he got permission from the world," says his daughter Leslie Ebeling Serna. "He was able to let that part of his life go."

Ebeling died Monday at age 89 in Brigham City, Utah, after a long illness, according to his daughter Kathy Ebeling.

An Oklahoma law that lets employers opt out of state-regulated workers' compensation has been rejected and declared unconstitutional by state regulators.

The Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission called the alternative workplace-benefit plans that some employers adopted under the law "a water mirage on the highway that disappears upon closer inspection."

The unanimous ruling by the commission, issued Friday, is expected to be appealed.

When NPR reported Bob Ebeling's story on the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, hundreds of listeners and readers expressed distress and sympathy in letters and emails.

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up."

Kevin Schiller had no idea what hit him.

With 21 years on the job, the building engineer for Macy's department stores had been in and out of every nook and cranny of many of the retail giant's Texas stores, including the storage room in the Macy's in Denton, Texas.

One minute, the stocky, 6-foot-2 Schiller was searching there for a floor drain. The next, he was sprawled on the floor, stunned, confused and bleeding slightly.

Updated 7:30 p.m. ET with Kline comment

Ten ranking Democrats on key Senate and House committees are urging the Labor Department to respond to a "pattern of detrimental changes in state workers' compensation laws" that have reduced protections and benefits for injured workers over the past decade.

As states consider allowing employers to completely opt out of workers' compensation plans, NPR and ProPublica take a look at how the concept has worked in Texas. Read the full investigation here.

Billy Doyle Walker loved working in the sky. He used to say he could see forever, perched high up communications towers as he applied fresh paint.

Three years ago, working halfway up a 300-foot steel tower at the LBJ Ranch, the panoramic view included the rolling green hills and meadows of the Texas Hill Country. The tower was used by former President Lyndon B. Johnson to communicate with the White House.

The nation's coal miners have lost an advocate — a pulmonologist who helped create a national movement in the 1960's that focused national attention on the deadly coal miners' disease known as black lung.

Dr. Donald Rasmussen died July 23 at age 87 in Beckley, W.V., where he spent close to 50 years assessing, studying and treating coal miners — more than 40,000 of them, by his account. His work documenting the occurrence of black lung helped trigger a statewide miners strike in West Virginia in 1969.

In 1998, the year that Sepp Blatter took the helm at FIFA, the world soccer governing body, the International Olympic Committee became ensnared in its worst ethics crisis ever. As with FIFA, there were allegations of bribery, influence-peddling and corruption among IOC members and the shadowy "agents" who helped cities bidding for the Olympics.

Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games was the focus of investigations by the Justice Department, Congress and Utah prosecutors, and corporate sponsors concerned about tainted Olympic rings threatened to pull out.

The inspector general of the Labor Department is conducting an audit of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's handling of delinquent mine safety penalties.

Billionaire Jim Justice is said to be West Virginia's richest man. Now he wants to be the state's top elected official.

Justice announced his Democratic bid for governor Monday in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., which is home to his best-known asset — the posh and historic Greenbrier Resort.

"You need somebody that loves our state," Justice told a crowd of supporters, "and somebody that doesn't want a nickel for doing it."

Democratic lawmakers in Illinois sought to turn back proposed cutbacks in workers' compensation benefits with a rare eight-hour hearing Tuesday before the entire Illinois House.

House Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan convened the hearing in response to workers' compensation changes proposed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The tattoos on Dennis Whedbee's left arm describe what he lost when the North Dakota oil rig where he was working blew out in 2012. There's an image of a severed hand spurting blood, framed by the word "LOST" in block letters and the date: "9-23-12."

The message underscores Whedbee's frustration with a workers' compensation system in which benefits and access to benefits have changed in North Dakota and across the country.

"I lost a hand at work and this is workman's comp," Whedbee, 53, says at his home in Pennsylvania. "Give me what I deserve. I deserve a hand."

Federal lawmakers have revived a mine safety reform bill that addresses a regulatory failure detailed in a joint investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act includes a provision that directly addresses the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) failure to fully enforce penalties for safety violations at the nation's mines.

Frances Stevens could have been a contender. She was training to be a Golden Gloves boxer and working as a magazine publisher in 1997 when 1,000 copies of the latest issue arrived at her San Francisco office.

"I'd just turned 30. I was an athlete. I had a job that I loved, a life that I loved," she recalls. "And in a second my life changed."

California's labor department says it will conduct an audit of how Travelers Insurance handled the case of paralyzed worker Joel Ramirez, who was left to fend for himself for months after the company withdrew his 24-hour home health care.

Six weeks before a landmark mine disaster trial, federal prosecutors in West Virginia have added a new allegation to the criminal conspiracy charges lodged against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

At the time of their accidents, Jeremy Lewis was 27, Josh Potter 25.

The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were married with two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos of their children's names.

Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrial plants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion of his left arm in a machinery accident.

A federal appeals court has vacated a sweeping gag order in the criminal case involving former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster.

Workers injured on the job are supposed to get guaranteed medical care and money to live on. Employers and their insurance companies pay for that.

And in return, employers don't get sued for workplace accidents. But this "grand bargain," as it's called, in workers' compensation, seems to be unraveling.

A few hours after ProPublica and NPR issued the first in a series of reports about workers' compensation "reforms" sweeping the country, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration coincidentally released a paper linking workplace injuries to income inequality.

Dennis Whedbee's crew was rushing to prepare an oil well for pumping on the Sweet Grass Woman lease site, a speck of dusty plains rich with crude in Mandaree, N.D.

It was getting late that September afternoon in 2012. Whedbee, a 50-year-old derrick hand, was helping another worker remove a pipe fitting on top of the well when it suddenly blew.

Two weeks after NPR and Mine Safety and Health News reported nearly $70 million in delinquent mine safety penalties at more than 4,000 coal and mineral mines, federal regulators suddenly revived a rare approach to force mines to pay.

They cited a delinquent coal mine for failing to pay $30,000 in overdue penalties and gave the mine's owner two weeks to pay. He didn't, so the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) shut down the mine. Within 40 minutes, mine officials agreed to a payment plan and the mine reopened.

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