By Chris Lawrence
October 3, 2017 - Months after completing legislation to protect health care benefits for retired coal miners and their families, West Virginia congressional delegation entered step two of the process on Tuesday by introducing a measure to shore up the miners’ pension benefits.
“These miners are faced with this difficulty not because they did anything wrong and not because their union asked for too much,” said United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts. “Those are fables people like to tell. It’s because of the coal industry shrinking for a number of reasons.”
The UMWA pension was created in the 1940’s and backed by the federal government. The most recent update was the 1974 Miners Pension Plan. However, as the coal industry fell on hard times and bankruptcy filings began to mount, the pressure has left the pension fund in jeopardy.
The American Miners Pension Act, as currently written, would address the faltering plan with the following provisions according to the UMWA:
1. Include a provision from the original Miners Protection Act allowing transfers of excess funds in the Abandoned Mine Land program to the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan.
2. Direct the Treasury Department to loan the 1974 UMWA Plan funds annually to prevent insolvency.
3. Cap the annual loan amount at $600 million and set the interest rate at 1%.
4. Require the fund to pay interest only for the first ten years and then pay back the principal plus interest over
a 30-year term.
5. Require the fund to certify each year that the pension plan is solvent and able to pay back the remaining principal and interest.
6. Actuarial analyses indicate that the UMWA 1974 Plan would need to take loans for as little as four years.
“We’ve seen 51 or 52 bankruptcies throughout the coalfields of this country,” Roberts added during a press conference in Washington D.C. “The people who have suffered the most and lost the most along the way are the people who worked in the coal mines and retired from the coal mines.”
The legislation has bi-partisan backing.
“We’ve go to fix this and we’ve got to make sure we take care of the people who paid for it,” said U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. “They didn’t ask for anything, it was taken out of their paychecks as part of their benefits. You get to the end of your working career and you say, ‘Okay, whose got my money?'”
U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito and West Virginia First District Congressman David McKinley were also on hand for the announcement.
“We realize the problem and today we announce how we’re going to get through the problem,” said Capito.
“We’re trying to keep our promise,” said McKinley. “Congress made a commitment back in ’46 with the President and we’ve got to keep that promise.”
West Virginia Congressmen Evan Jenkins and Alex Mooney are also on board in support of the legislation.
“The American Miners Pension Act ensures our nation will keep the promise made to our retired miners, their families and their widows,” Jenkins said in a statement released by his office.
“West Virginia coal miners risked their lives to power our entire country; we must act now to maintain the benefits they were promised. I am pleased to see this bi-partisan legislation introduced today that will support our coal miners.”
The pensions impact nearly 87,000 who currently receive them and another 25,000 who will be retiring in the coming years to begin collecting. Approximately 26,000 of those who rely on the pensions are in West Virginia. The average pension is around $586 a month.