WASHINGTON — Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine are trying to ensure pensions and health care benefits for coal miners at risk of losing them.
The senators last week introduced the American Miners Act of 2019 along with several of their Democratic colleagues.
Their legislation aims to shore up a 1974 United Mine Workers of America pension plan to ensure that 87,000 current beneficiaries and another 20,000 who have vested won’t lose their pensions, according to the Virginia lawmakers.
The pension plan is expected to be insolvent by 2022, and there are about 7,000 pensioners in Virginia who could lose their benefits if Congress doesn’t intervene, the senators said in a statement.
The Virginia senators signed on to legislation introduced in October 2017 that similarly sought to ensure solvency of the UMWA Pension Plan, but that bill didn’t advance, nor did its counterpart in the House.
“Congress made a promise in 1946 to protect coal miners after a lifetime of arduous and dangerous work to help power this nation. This legislation would ensure that we fulfill that promise by protecting retired coal miners across the country, including in Virginia,” Warner said in the statement.
President Harry Truman in 1946 brokered an agreement in which the federal government promised healthcare and pension benefits for the country’s coal miners.
The bill from Warner and Kaine would also secure healthcare coverage for 500 people in Virginia impacted by the 2018 bankruptcy of the Colorado-based company Westmoreland Coal. In 2017, lawmakers approved legislation ensuring that miners who retired from bankrupt coal companies wouldn’t lose their health care; this bill would include those impacted by the 2018 bankruptcies.
Additionally, the measure would extend for 10 years the tax on coal that provides healthcare and benefits to miners suffering from black lung disease. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was already $4 billion in debt when it expired at the end of 2018.
“Virginia’s miners earned their pensions and health care benefits after years of difficult and dangerous work to provide us energy,” Kaine said in the statement. “I hope that Congress will quickly act on this legislation and give miners peace of mind.”
The bill is also sponsored by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Doug Jones of Alabama and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
Warner and Kaine were also among the lawmakers who pushed legislation last fall to boost the detection and treatment of black lung disease, which was enacted as part of an annual appropriations bill.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said it’s critical that Congress enact legislation this year to shore up the pension fund.
“We’re one bankruptcy away from the fund using all of its contributions and going into a tailspin,” he said.
There has been bipartisan support in Congress for legislation to address the pension fund, and Smith expects that companion legislation will soon be introduced in the House. Similar bills have faltered for years on Capitol Hill. Smith puts the blame on “a faction of folks on the far right who just don’t believe that the government should get involved in solving any pension issues.”
He expects to see more action in the House, with Democrats now in charge.
“This is the year, this is the time, we have to get this done,” he said.