Miners Rally to Save Health Benefits and Pensions
Jennings Harrison worked in a coal mine for 36 years, over which time he accumulated back problems, neck problems, carpal tunnel in his wrist and precancerous nodules on his lungs.
"If we didn’t have the healthcare, we’d be hurting," he said.
By this time next year, not having healthcare could be a reality for him, though.
That’s because Harrison worked for Peabody Energy, then Patriot Coal. Both companies filed for bankruptcy in the last four years.
A little background. In 2007, Peabody created Patriot Coal. Peabody assigned Patriot 13 percent of its coal reserves and 40 percent of its health care liabilities. In a nutshell?
"Peabody was attempting to shed enormous amounts of its existing liability by creating Patriot," said West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley in a Skype interview. McGinley is co-editor of a treatise on coal law and regulation.
"And whether or not Patriot would survive was the question, but there’s a fairly good argument that that’s what Peabody was trying to do at the time," he said.
As part of a union contract, miners who have put in 20 or more years were promised lifelong health benefits.
But when Patriot filed for bankruptcy in 2012, then again in 2015, a judge granted Patriot’s request to shed retirees benefits. The United Mine Workers of America stepped in and negotiated $400 million from Patriot and Peabody. The companies came up about $100 million short. Those band aid funds will run out by the end of this calendar year.
Without healthcare benefits, Harrison said he could be forced to declare bankruptcy himself.
"I mean after working all your life in the mines and I was promised healthcare and stuff, pensions and stuff, it’d be a shame to lose that when you really need it," said Harrison.
Harrison is just one of almost 22,000 retirees and their dependents from seven states who are slotted to lose their benefits by the end of the year. Today, thousands of these active and retired coal miners from seven states are expected in Lexington, Kentucky, for a United Mine Workers of America rally to fight for those benefits.
"They are going to have to make some very, very difficult and frightening choices," said Phil Smith, Director of Communications and Governmental Affairs for the United Mine Workers of America.
"Are they going to be able to buy the drugs that they need or pay rent? Are they going to be get the healthcare they need - go see the doctor - or buy food?"
In 1946, United States Government and the UMWA signed an agreement that guaranteed miners with 20 or more years on the job benefits for life. Smith said this is the only such agreement that has ever been signed between the U.S. government and a union.
The miners are rallying today to ask the government to honor that promise.
"What is required at this point is legislation that we are looking at in Congress that would preserve these healthcare benefits for these people that will lose them as a result of these bankruptcies, said Smith.
Protections for miners’ health care and pensions were included in a December 2015 bipartisan budget plan. The plan itself made it through both chambers of Congress, but did not include the additional funding aimed at protecting miners’ health care and pensions. It’s not completely clear why, but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell opposed the provision. However, it is well known that McConnell has repeatedly clashed with the UMWA.
An emailed statement from a McConnell spokeswoman said he “has been and remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation's retirees, including coal miners."
Smith is worried that "if Congress does not act, if Congress fails to act, to do its job, to keep its promise that the United States government made to these retirees 70 years ago, then the money will run out and those folks will be without their healthcare because there is no other money to take care of it."
Five major coal producers in the United States have sought bankruptcy protection in the last five years. Each time they sought to shed employee benefits.
"Members of Congress, politicians, it’s their responsibility to fix laws when they are misused in the sort of way that many believe have occurred not only with Peabody and Patriot, but with other corporate entities as well in the coal industry and other forms of business," said McGinley. "Congress really has to take a look at bankruptcy laws and fix it."
Peabody did not respond to request for comment and the PR company who worked for Patriot declined comment. No other Patriot spokesperson could be found.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story reported that the miners’ health care and pensions were part of a bill that was approved in 2015. This story has been corrected to show that proposal was part of a budget plan.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.