WHEELING - Senators representing the local region introduced legislation aimed at protecting coal miners' pension benefits.
Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, along with Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are sponsors of Senate Bill 468, the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act. The measure has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
In a joint statement, the senators note the United Mine Workers of America's 1974 pension plan is severely underfunded and "on the road to insolvency because of the 2008 financial crisis." If the plan were to become insolvent, reductions in union members' pension checks would be imminent. The 1974 plan covers more than 100,000 mine workers.
Patriot Coal Co. - with operations in West Virginia - has filed for bankruptcy and is seeking to reduce or eliminate its benefit obligations to retirees. The action would affect more than 2,000 retired miners and their dependents, according to the senators. The proposed bill would make Patriot beneficiaries and others who lose health care benefits due to bankruptcy or insolvency of their employer for the 1992 benefit plan, created under the Coal Act of 1992. Companies that originally promised these benefits would be held accountable for the costs, but additional funding from the Abandoned Mine Land fund would be available if needed.
The legislation also would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations of the pension plan and prevent its insolvency.
Lastly, the legislation would provide that employer contributions under the UMWA Retiree Bonus Trust are not unfairly penalized by the tax code and receive the same tax-exempt treatment as contributions to other pension plans.
Rockefeller is the lead sponsor of the bill and said he was motivated to introduce the bill after hearing from retired miners fearful of losing their pensions.
"Our coal miners work their entire lives - at risk of life and limb - to provide for their families and fuel our nation," Rockefeller said. "We owe them nothing less than to make sure the pledge of lifetime benefits is preserved. It's so simple - make a promise, keep your promise. That's what I'm fighting for."
"Our coal miners are some of the hardest working people in America, and they are proud to do the heavy lifting that keeps this country strong," Manchin said. "They are the backbone behind decades of lighting our cities and heating our homes, and deserve nothing less than the best possible benefits and care. This bill makes sure our brave coal miners receive the benefits they've been promised."
Brown echoed the sentiment.
"Ohio's coal miners work hard every day and deserve the pensions and health care benefits they were promised," he noted. "This bill would ensure that the benefits earned by miners and their families are protected and that employers are held accountable for the promises made to its employees."