By Lesley Clark
May 8, 2019 - Because a pension fund for thousands of coal miners faces insolvency within three years, a contingent of retired coal workers will descend on the Capitol Wednesday, hoping to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to back a fix.
It’s the ninth consecutive year the group has pressed Congress to act — but McConnell wants a broader fix to ensure the health of the federally chartered Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which insures millions of Americans in defined benefits pension plans but is facing its own fiscal challenges.
“There is momentum to fix the entire system, but that’s going to move slowly,” said Phil Smith, director of government affairs for the United Mine Workers of America. “Our plan is separate because we can’t wait for a global pension fix.”
Smith said the slump in the coal industry and company bankruptcies have hurt the pension fund, which now has just one major company, Murray Energy, contributing to the fund.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who is sponsoring legislation to address the coal miners’ pensions and will appear Wednesday at a press conference to push his legislation, said Tuesday he wants a more sweeping fix, but worries about the immediate risk for the retired coal workers and their families.
“I don’t know how he can just turn his back on the miners in Kentucky and West Virginia,” Manchin said of McConnell in an interview Tuesday. “He just can’t continue to stonewall them and leave them with nothing.”
Manchin argued that if the miners’ fund dries up, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. would be affected “and everything else tumbles behind and we don’t want that to happen.”
He noted that a House and Senate task force that was convened last year to look at shoring up the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. missed its year-end deadline to come up with a more comprehensive solution.
“It’s a big lift but it has to be done, sooner or later,” Manchin said. “My concern and the urgency for the coal miners, is that we, by all accounts, will become financially insolvent by 2022.”
Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman, said the Kentucky Republican is concerned about the challenges facing what are known as multi-employer pension plans, such as the UMWA’s fund, which are sponsored by more than one employer and maintained under collective bargaining agreements.
“He believes it is best addressed through a broader bipartisan and bicameral pension reform effort,” Steurer said.
The congressional committee that looked at maintaining the solvency of multi-employer pension plans,did not complete its work last year, but Ohio senators Rob Portman, a Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, who were members of that group, said they are continuing to work to find a solution.
The United Mine Workers of America’s pension plan is underfunded because the number of retirees now far exceeds the number of active workers as union mining jobs have declined along with a general downturn in the coal industry. Current estimates are that the miners’ plan could be insolvent by 2022.
Due to economic challenges, the pension guaranty corporation has estimated that almost 75 percent of multi-employer plan participants are in plans that are less than 50 percent funded. It estimates its multi-employer fund will run out of money by the end of 2025.
Manchin’s legislation would transfer excess funds from a federal program to reclaim and restore abandoned mine sites to keep the pension plan solvent.