By Shelly Schultz
October 1, 2018 - Retired coal miners are on Capital Hill this week asking Congress to pass what United Mine Workers of America describes as life-or-death legislation to preserve their benefits.
"In 2017, Congress passed half of the Miners Protection Act - the half that secured health care benefits for retirees," said Phil Smith, UMWA's director of government affairs. "They did not pass the half that would secure the pensions of retired miners and their spouses."
A deal was made 70 years ago between striking mine workers and the federal government for promised health care and pensions in exchange for a lifetime of hard work.
Due to some financial challenges in the past few years Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which protects the pension benefits of nearly 40 million Americans, projects its multi-employer fund will run out of money by the end of 2025.
David Dilly of Fresno is among the retired miners who have converged in Washington D.C. asking Congress to safeguard their pension.
The 72-year-old retired miner said not passing the Miner's Protection Act is almost criminal.
"We worked in those mines to provide for our families and our future," Dilly said. "We were promised that small pension for our hard work. One of my best friends was killed and a lot were injured for those benefits. To those families, that pension could mean the difference between having to chose to buy groceries or medication. Taking that pension from them is criminal."
Dilly, who worked in the mines for 19 years, considers himself one of the lucky ones.
"I was fortunate - my dad died from black lung," Dilly said.
Dresden resident Norm Skinner spent 22 years in the mines and said he is one of the lucky ones too.
“We had a lot of deaths due to cancer," Skinner said. "Without exaggeration, about 40 percent of the miners died of cancer."
Skinner said in 1994, the last year he worked in the mines, a company came in with hazmat gear to clean and wash out tanks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed the solvent unsafe and illegal.
"We cleaned and washed parts in that solvent that was later found to be a carcinogen," 81-year-old Skinner said.
Both men worked in the Simco Peabody Mines in the corners of Coshocton, Muskingum and Guernsey counties.
Skinner and his wife, Jane, have traveled to Washington D.C. 20 times since 2014 fighting for the benefits of retired miners.
"We've made 12 bus trips to St. Louis," Skinner said. "There are a lot of widows that really depend on that little check - that's about $590 - every month."
These miners, who sacrificed greatly to provide for their families and their futures, say they are at the mercy of a government that has forgotten who they are.
The PBGC operates two separate insurance programs - one covering pension plans sponsored by a single employer and another covering multi-employer pension plans, which are sponsored by more than one employer and maintained under collective bargaining agreements, according to its website.
The corporation is currently responsible for the benefits of about 1.5 million people in failed pension plans. PBGC receives no taxpayer dollars. It's operations are financed by insurance premiums, investment income and assets and recoveries from failed single employer plans.
The multi-employer plan is at risk for insolvency. If the PBGC goes bust, U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars to keep the agency afloat, according to Smith.
As part of the comprehensive Bipartisan Budget Act passed on Feb. 9, Congress did not provide any funding to secure the pensions of retired miners and widows, or hundreds of thousands of other retirees across America. The issue was raised repeatedly in the budget negotiations, however the majority party would not agree to any level of funding to solve this problem.
Instead, congressional leaders agreed to create a Joint Select Committee on Multi-employer Pensions, to address the looming insolvency of multi-employer plans like the UMWA’s 1974 Pension Fund.
The committee is required to make a report to Congress by the last week of November.
This is the last week before congress disappears for mid-term election, Phil Smith said. When they return in November, they will have only one week to meet the deadline that threatens severe cuts to multi-employer pension plans.
"We are just asking Congress to pass the proposed loan program that would provide funding for multi-employer pensions," Smith said. "Failure to do so is politically irresponsible."