Thousands of coal miners could lose benefits unless Congress acts

    On September 8

    On September 8

    As coal declines, some companies are filing for bankruptcy, endangering miners’ health care and pensions.

    Time is running out for Pennsylvania coal miners. By January 1, 13,000 coal miners could lose their pensions and thousands their health care. Legislation called the Miners Protection Act would avert the loss of benefits, but the U.S. Senate has yet to schedule the bill for a vote.

    Donnie Samms is director of Region 1 of the United Mine Workers of America, an area which includes Pennsylvania. He said it’s crucial for Congress to pass the bill and support miners. Spending years underground takes a huge toll on a person’s body, he said.

    “We have members come in who are on pacemakers, they got arthritis, they got black lung, a lot of sickness,” he said.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    In April of 1946, coal miners went on strike, calling for better wages, health benefits, and improved safety conditions. The strike stretched until December when John Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers, and Julius Krug, the government’s coal mines administrator signed a deal. The U.S. government took over the mines and guaranteed certain conditions.

    The Lewis-Krug agreement is referenced a lot in discussion of miners’ pensions and health care. Some argue that it guaranteed benefits to miners in perpetuity. Others argue that it guaranteed benefits only for the time the U.S. government ran the mines, which it stopped doing in 1947. But regardless of what Lewis and Krug set their names to, there have been numerous government interventions in miners’ benefits ever since.

    In 1990, the Coal Commission issued recommendations that read, in part: “Retired coal miners have legitimate expectations of retiree health care benefits for life; that is what they were promised during their working years and that is how they planned their retirement years. That commitment should be honored.”

    To Samms, the consequences of not passing this bill are clear.

    “There’ll be people dying, there really will. There’ll be people dying on us,” he said.

    Competition from natural gas and federal regulation have dramatically lowered demand for coal. Some companies have filed for bankruptcy, and shed their obligations to contribute to coal miners’ benefits. To cover the gap, the Miners Protection Act would use up to $490 million of interest created by the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, a pot of money paid into by coal companies to restore land used for mining. It’s been done before, in 2006.

    “[Members] come in here and they’re scared, you know, ‘What am I going to do?’” said Samms. “You know, they worked hard for this. They worked their whole life for this, to have health care and a pension.”

    Often in contract negotiations, coal miners accepted lower wages and smaller contributions to their pensions in exchange for knowing they’d have paid health care in their old age. It’s something they’ve constantly had to fight for, said Samms, adding this is probably the biggest fight they’ve ever had.

    “We are not going away. You can put that in there. We are not quitting. Way I was raised, you can’t lose a fight if you don’t quit. You might get beat up every day, right?”

    The Senate Committee on Finance voted 18-8 in July to recommend the bill for floor action. A vote has yet to be scheduled. 

    In a letter sent this week, Senator Bob Casey urged President-elect Donald Trump to show his support for the bill, and make good on his campaign commitment to coal miners.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal