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Coal Miners Back in Washington Fighting for Benefits

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Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee
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United Mine Workers and supporters were on Capitol Hill Wednesday in an effort to shore up their pension and health benefits. More than 43,000 coal miners in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are growing anxious about losing their retirement benefits.

The coal miner’s union says its pension fund will be insolvent in three years if Congress doesn’t take action. If the pension plan defaults, coal miner’s retirement plans will fall to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which will reduce their benefits. It would also put the PBGC at risk of insolvency.  

The two bills introduced to deal separately with health and pension benefits are seeking money from the office of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation. Miners met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier this week to advocate for their benefits. One of them was Jimmy Moore, a 73-year-old coal miner with black lung from Pike County, Ky. He said he hopes to remind McConnell why he was elected.

“He’s living high on the hog and we put him in there to help us, not to destroy us by taking away what little amount of pension that we’ve got,” Moore said.

Coal miner’s pensions are at risk partly because of a downturn in the coal market, the 2008 recession and coal company bankruptcies. Rachel Grezsler is with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. She testified at the hearing that the responsibility also lies with the union officials and employer representatives who she said mismanaged the funds. 

“By paying benefits to workers who had not earned them, by consistently promising more than they should have reasonably set aside to pay and by failing to reduce pension benefits,” she said.   

Greszler said the UMWA is only part of the country’s multiemployer pension crisis. She says there are 1,400 other retirement plans that are struggling and should be dealt with as part of a comprehensive solution. The coal miners’ union has said it supports a solution for all pension plans at risk, but is running out of time. 

Last year, two Ohio Valley lawmakers served on a joint select committee on multi-employer pensions. That committee was tasked with finding a solution to shore up pension plans for a range of workers. The committee disbanded without presenting a solution.

It’s unclear if either of those bills will move out of committee and get a vote on the house floor.

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