Ohio Sen. Lou Gentile wants Ohio General Assembly members to support proposed federal legislation aimed at protecting coal miners' pension benefits.
Gentile, D-Steubenville, has introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 11, urging the "Congress of the United States pass the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act."
The federal Senate Bill 468, aka the "CARE Act," was introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 6 by Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, along with Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
The measure 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. It was introduced after Patriot Coal Co. - with operations in West Virginia - filed for bankruptcy and sought to reduce or eliminate its benefit obligations to retirees. That action would affect more than 2,000 retired miners and their dependents, according to the senators.
According to information provided by the senators, some retirees are facing uncertainty because the UMWA's 1974 pension plan is severely underfunded and on the road to insolvency because of the 2008 financial crisis. The 1974 plan covers more than 100,000 mineworkers - including more than 35,000 West Virginians and hundreds of Ohioans.
The proposed bill would make Patriot beneficiaries and others who lose health care benefits due to bankruptcy or insolvency of their employer eligible for the 1992 benefit plan, created under the Coal Act of 1992 - and shored up by funds from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund. Companies that originally promised workers benefits still would be held accountable for the costs, but additional funding from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund would be available if needed under the proposed legislation.
SB 468 sits before the Senate Finance Committee in Washington.
Gentile said his legislation is a way lawmakers in Columbus can show their support "for coal miners and their families who rely on pension benefits," as well as for the efforts of the U.S. Senate.
"This legislation in the Senate is a good step," Gentile said. "Companies and corporations have responsibilities to their workers, and corporations shouldn't be allowed to get out of those responsibilities. They've made promises to their workers, and they're not asking for anything not promised to them.
"In the event of insolvency, these companies just can't walk away from liabilities," Gentile said. "But if they do, we have to make sure everything is being done to assure the pensions."