The Coal Industry Retiree Health Benefit Act (the “Coal Act”) was passed by Congress and signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. It provides funding for health care benefits of UMWA retirees, their dependents and surviving spouses when the company they retired from is no longer in business. The Coal Act only covers health care for miners who retired before October 1, 1994.
In 1946, U.S. President Harry Truman and Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug came to an agreement with UMWA President John L. Lewis that miners would have continued health care when they retired, provided by their last employer. Coal mining is dangerous, back-breaking work. After 20-30 years working in a mine, miners normally have a host of medical problems. For the decades since that agreement, contracts were negotiated with that obligation in place. For decades following, retirement health care was so important to union miners that they were willing to take less in wage increases to maintain it.
In the late 1980s, companies started trying to avoid paying into the retirement funds and stop retiree health care, effectively dumping their retirees. The issue came to a head in 1989 during the UMWA’s strike with Pittston Coal Company, when Pittston refused to agree to a national contract that maintained retiree health care. The company cut off that care, triggering a 10-month strike in southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia.
After the UMWA successfully kept retiree health care intact as a result of that strike, Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole created the Coal Commission. This Commission, made up of representatives from the coal industry, the UMWA, the health insurance industry, medical professionals, and local/state/federal government officials made recommendations to the Secretary and Congress for a comprehensive resolution. The Commission concluded that, “Retired miners have legitimate expectations of health care benefits for life; that was the promise they received during their working lives, and that is how they planned their retirement years. That commitment should be honored.”
Based on the Coal Commission’s recommendations, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced the Coal Act. Under the legislation, all companies (including those that had abandoned their retirees) were required to pay for the cost of their retirees. Orphan retirees, or those without a surviving employer, would be paid out of transfers of surplus pension assets and interest from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund.
To find out if your health care is covered by the Coal Act, contact the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds at 1-800-291-1425.