Would you go into a dangerous profession if you were assured that you and your dependents would have healthcare and pension for life? For thousands of West Virginia coal miners, the answer to that question was yes.
“When we all started in the mines, we were promised healthcare for life – cradle to grave,” said Roger Merriman. He’s referring to a deal struck between the United Mine Workers of America and the federal government in 1946. Union miners who put in 20 or more years were promised lifelong health benefits.
But in October, 12,500 miners, including Merriman, received notice that without Congressional intervention their benefits would be terminated at the end of the year. On Nov. 1, another 3,600 miners received notices. Next year, an additional 6,500 miners will be affected.
That’s because when Merriman’s company, Patriot Coal, filed for bankruptcy in 2012, then again in 2015, a federal bankruptcy judge granted its request to shed retirees’ benefits.
Merriman said this will have a huge impact on him and his family.
“We’ll have to make a choice,” he said, “of ... going to the doctors and buying prescriptions, or paying bills and eating. It’s a life and death situation realistically is what it is.”
Patriot is one of five major coal producers in the United States that has sought bankruptcy protection in the last five years. Each time the companies sought to shed employee and retiree benefits.
After the Patriot bankruptcy in 2012, the UMWA negotiated a $400 million payment to shore up the retirees’ benefit funds. But it was not a long-term solution. Existing companies pay into a UMWA fund for retirees, but as those mines close, there is less money going into the pot. The number of retired miners who are drawing from it, though, is increasing. And the fund is about to run out of money.
“We have tens of thousands of miners who are scheduled to lose their health insurance at the end of the month and more next year,” said West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito. She and Joe Manchin are two of 22 bipartisan Senators calling for the passage of the Miners Protection Act.It’s unclear whether the House will support the bill.
“It passed out of committee – bipartisan – and we’re going to keep working hard, but there is no fallback position if it doesn’t pass this year,” she said.
The Miners Protection Act moves money from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund into the UMWA pension and health benefits program.
The wildcard is Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Although McConnell says he does not oppose the bill, he has yet to bring the bill to a vote. In an email, a McConnell representative did not clarify the Senator’s position, beyond stating “there are no scheduling announcements to be made at this time.”
So what role does President-elect Donald Trump play in all this?
“Looking forward, we have a President-elect who has promised to get our coal miners working again,” said West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley. McGinley said Trump is in a position to make a huge difference in the lives of about 120,000 miners and their widows.
“I think a strong and forceful statement by [the] President-elect to Senator McConnell could move this bill along to passage.”
McGinley added if Trump does put coal miners back to work, more money could come from the active mines to shore up the retirees’ pensions and benefits. But until then, without intervention, thousands of miners, including Roger Merriman, may be forced to make some tough choices in the coming year.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.