Following a failed attempt to address a looming crisis in many multi-employer pension programs, two Ohio Valley lawmakers have introduced a bill in Congress to shore up the shaky pension plan for coal miners. The bill also aims to protect health benefits and restore funding for the federal trust fund providing benefits for thousands of miners sickened by black lung disease.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is one of six Democrats sponsoring the American Miners Act of 2019, which seeks to fund the pension plan for coal miners guaranteeing retirement and health benefits from cradle to grave. Brown says the fund is at risk of insolvency due to a downturn in the coal market, the 2008 recession, and coal company bankruptcies.
“Mine workers are in a particularly vulnerable position,” Brown said. “Mine workers and their widows would lose 40 to 50 percent of their pension.”
Brown and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin served on a joint select committee on multi-employer pensions last year. That committee was tasked with finding a solution to pension problems affecting a range of work from teamsters and iron workers to bakers and confectioners. But the committee missed a self-imposed deadline to come up with a solution at the end of November, and concluded the year without presenting a solution
“Well the committee’s out of business legally,” Brown said. “It was set up to run through the end of the year.”
So Brown and fellow Democrats are again pushing a bill similar to one they presented in 2017 dealing with pension and health benefits for coal retirees. The measure extends healthcare benefits for miners who worked for companies that went bankrupt last year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky split the issues in 2017, separating healthcare benefits from pensions. Sen. Brown said he hopes it will be different this time.
“However Sen. McConnell wants to do it in the end,” Brown said. “He’s on the ballot in 2020. I think he wants to show the mine workers that he can be on their side and that’s what we will sell to him and to Republican leadership and to the president.”
Sen. McConnell’s office declined a request for comment.
Brown said he’d also like to see support from the Trump administration. As both candidate and president, the coal industry has been a staple of the president’s rhetoric.
“I hope the president of the United States will, for the first time in this, show some interest in supporting the mine workers other than making good speeches about mine workers,” Brown said.
Out of Time
Phil Smith is the spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America. He wants to see a solution for all multi-employer pensions but says the UMWA is running out of time.
“It’s just not clear that there is going to be a bigger solution,” Smith said. “We hope that there is and to that extent that, that solution would apply to our fund we would welcome that, but again there’s no more time to wait.”
The American Miners Act would transfer excess funds from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program to shore up pension benefits.
The measure also seeks to extend a tax rate used to fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. Congress allowed that tax rate to expire at the end of 2018, returning the tax to a rate from before 1981. That cuts the industry’s contribution to the fund by roughly half and, according to a federal agency’s analysis, could plunge the fund further into debt.
The trust fund provides monthly payments and medical treatment to coal miners totally disabled from black lung caused by their work in the nation’s coal mines when a responsible mining company can’t be identified.