Lawmakers Make New Push for Retired Miners

Source: E&E News

Lawmakers have renewed their bid to fix the United Mine Workers of America pension problem while also extending health care help to even more union miners as coal companies continue to go bankrupt.

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) returned with the latest version of the “Miners Pension Protection Act” last week after a special joint congressional committee failed to reach a broader pension deal last year.

H.R. 935 aims to rescue pensions for more than 100,000 coal retirees whose former companies dropped their retirement obligations during bankruptcy (E&E News PM, Nov. 29, 2018).

“The UMWA plan is projected to be insolvent by 2022 or sooner,” McKinley said. “We need to act soon and avoid this looming crisis.”

The bill would allow the UMWA pension plan to dip into Treasury funds set aside for the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) cleanup program and expand the total available from $490 million to $750 million.

Two years ago, Congress used the same pot of money to shore up health care benefits for many of the same miners, but split off pensions (E&E Daily, April 27, 2017).

A pension bailout gets support from Republicans in Eastern coal states, but fiscal hawks see no difference between the UMWA and droves of imperiled private pension funds.

The union argues that taxpayers will have to spend more money if UMWA pensioners bankrupt the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. as expected, but also that a series of federal actions dating back to 1946 constitute a “promise” to safeguard all miner benefits.

“We have a moral obligation to ensure that their hard-earned pensions are there when they retire,” said Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, one of four Democrats and four Republicans co-sponsoring McKinley’s bill.

At the same time, House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) wants to expand the pool of miners guaranteed health care by the federal government.

H.R. 934 would update current protections to include miners whose companies declared bankruptcy in 2018, namely Westmoreland Coal Co. and Mission Coal Co. (Greenwire, Dec. 18, 2018).

Senate Democrats led by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin have combined expanded health care coverage and pensions into a single bill.

  1. S.27 would also restore the black lung tax rate to 2017 levels. The tax, which pays health benefits for roughly 25,000 miners, dropped by half at the end of last year (E&E News PM, June 4, 2018).

“We cannot continue to allow these solutions to be put off again and again,” Manchin said.

“For these retired miners, their pensions and health care benefits are the difference between paying their mortgage or being kicked out of their home, it’s the difference between putting food on their tables or going hungry.”

Written by: Dylan Brown