WASHINGTON - A bill protecting the pension and lifetime health benefits thousands of retired coal miners and their families is going to be introduced by a West Virginia senator.
The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act would protect the promised benefits that are now in jeopardy, Sen. Jay Rockefeller said. Rockefeller on Friday met with retirees, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, R-W.Va.
Mine retirees are facing uncertainty because the union's 1974 pension plan, which covers more than 100,000 mine workers, including more than 35,000 West Virginians, is underfunded and on the road to insolvency, a result of the recent financial crisis and fewer contributions to the plan, Rockefeller said.
Also, Patriot Coal, a spinoff from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, is facing bankruptcy and could shed its obligations to retirees, which means more than 12,000 retired miners including 7,000 West Virginians, the vast majority of whom worked for Peabody and Arch, and their dependents would lose health benefits and the 1974 pension plan would be further crippled, he said.
"If nothing is done, we are looking at a situation where people are going to have to make cruel choices," Roberts said. "Will they eat or get their medicines? Will they pay the mortgage or get the surgery they need? This is literally a matter of life and death for thousands of people in West Virginia and throughout the nation's coalfields. These miners lived up to their end of the bargain and went to work everyday in the mines. They did nothing wrong, but now their health, their income, their security and their very lives are at risk. The bill will go a long way toward righting this terrible wrong."
The act seeks to provide certainty and peace of mind to retirees and their families and hold employers accountable for the commitments made to workers, Rockefeller said.
"In West Virginia, a promise made is a promise kept. And when it comes to our coal miners - who put their lives, limbs and lungs on the line under the promise of a secure future for them and their families - there should never be any backing away from that pledge," Rockefeller said. "I've heard from retirees and their loved ones who are deeply fearful and rightfully angry. This legislation is about human decency, it's about doing what's right, and it's about having the backs of those who have ours deep underground."