Miners seek help from Congress as health and pension benefits expire
April 1, 2017 12:00 AM
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
People listen to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speak with coal miners Friday at a town hall meeting in Matewan, W.Va.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – They spent years in dark and dangerous mines, and now coal workers are trolling Capitol Hill’s alabaster corridors hoping to get members of Congress to see the light.
Nearly every day, different contingents of active and retired miners make their case in House and Senate offices.
These miners want pensions and health care they believe they were promised in 1946. That’s when the federal government ended a nationwide strike by temporarily taking control of mines while agreeing to create health and retirement funds.
Pension funds are on track to dry up within three years, and health benefits would have expired in December had Congress not approved a four-month extension. That funding is set to run out at the end of April, and the uncertainty is worrisome to 22,000 retirees who depend on it for medical care.
“We can’t keep kicking this can down the road,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, which has been leading the lobbying effort. “If benefits are cut off, people are going to be kicked out of their nursing homes.” Already, he said, they’re wondering whether to schedule medical appointments in May.
Lawmakers including U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have a fix: the Miners Protection Act, which would secure the funding.
UMWA is seeking a permanent fix like the one Mr. Manchin proposes. His bill would fund health and pension benefits by transferring $2.2 billion from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund over 10 years. The fund currently has $2.4 billion made up of fees paid by mine operators.
Retiree Tony Kodrick of Uniontown is among the Western Pennsylvanians making the trip to Washington next week to lobby for the Manchin bill.
“We’re hoping for a permanent fix so we don’t have to keep worrying about losing benefits. It puts stress on me and it puts stress on my wife worrying that we’re going to lose benefits,” said Mr. Kodrick, a third-generation coal worker who spent 36 years in the mines. He worked for Alpha Natural Resources at Cumberland Mine in Waynesburg and for U.S. Steel at Maple Creek Mine in Washington County.
“We’re not asking for handouts or anything. We just want what we worked for all our lives,” Mr. Kodrick said. “A promise was made to us, and a promise is a promise.”
Opponents including U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said the bill could open the floodgates to retirees from other industries whose pension funds are running dry.
The conservative Heritage Foundation opposes the bailout, saying the government’s obligation ended when it returned mines to private operators in 1947.
The pension benefit amounts to about $2 million a year for retirees and widows in Allegheny County, $4 million in Armstrong County, $16 million in Fayette County, $12 million in Washington County, $6 million in Westmoreland County and $11 million in Cambria County.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has proposed an alternative that would provide funding for health care but does not address the pension shortfall. It is coupled with measures to ease regulations that coal companies find burdensome.
That’s not good enough for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who supports the Manchin solution because it guarantees miners and their families both health and retirement benefits.
“Every time Leader McConnell proposed something, it always seems to be substantially less. There’s an old legislative expression about ‘half a loaf,’ but often his proposals are worse than half a loaf,” Mr. Casey said. “Sen. Manchin and I have crafted a bipartisan solution that will make these miners and their families whole. They have earned these benefits and deserve nothing else.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is among the bill’s co-sponsors.
“Ohio coal miners sacrificed their backs and lungs for the promise they’d have a nest egg to retire and health care if they got sick. It’s up to us to ensure that these workers and their families receive the full benefits they earned over a lifetime of backbreaking work,” he said in a written statement.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org; 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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