WASHINGTON, DC – Senator Jay Rockefeller today issued the following statement in solidarity with the thousands of UMWA retirees rallying today in Fairmont for fair treatment after a federal bankruptcy judge ruled in May that Patriot Coal could proceed with shedding its health and pension obligations to more tens of thousands of retired miners and their dependents. Patriot Coal, which was spun-off from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
"Today's rally should remind us all of people like Shirley Inman, who left a good-paying job in Chicago for a mining job at home in West Virginia, with the promise of a lifetime pension and health-care benefits," said Rockefeller. "Now, after years of on-the-job injuries and a courageous fight with cancer, that promise is gone. This is an unconscionable outcome for Shirley and the thousands of miners and their families who gave of themselves to the mining industry for decades on end. It's heartbreaking and shameful, and I won't stand for it."
Because of the Patriot ruling, the company could shed its obligations to retirees, more than 15,000 retired miners and dependants, including 7,000 West Virginians -– the vast majority of whom actually worked for Peabody and Arch. They stand to lose critical health benefits, and the 1974 pension plan may be further destabilized.
Some retirees are also facing uncertainty because the UMWA’s 1974 pension plan is severely underfunded and on the road to insolvency because of the 2008 financial crisis. The 1974 plan covers more than 92,000 mineworkers, including more than 28,000 West Virginians. If the plan becomes insolvent, retirees could see reductions in their monthly pension checks.
To address this crisis, Rockefeller this year introduced legislation that would protect those benefits for thousands of retired miners whose livelihoods are in jeopardy.
The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act would:
- Amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds, in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land fund, to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency.
- Make Patriot’s union retirees and other union retirees who lose health care benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1992 Benefit Plan, which was established under the Coal Act of 1992 to provide health benefits to retired or disabled miners and their families. Companies that originally promised these benefits would be held accountable for the costs and, if needed, additional funding from the Abandoned Mine Land fund would be available.
- Provide that employer contributions under the UMWA Retiree Bonus Trust are not unfairly penalized by the tax code and receive the same tax-exempt treatment as contributions to other pension plans, allowing the full value of employer cash contributions to go to the retirees who earned them. This Retiree Bonus Trust provides modest supplemental pension payments to retired miners.
Rockefeller’s efforts through the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act build upon a longstanding record of steadfastly pursuing fairness for miners and their loved ones. He engineered passage of the 1992 Coal Act, which preserved health benefits for tens of thousands of retired miners and their widows who had been promised these benefits by both the federal government and their companies, after several companies unfairly stopped providing these benefits. Rockefeller again fought in 2006 to protect the UMWA health care plans by providing them with Abandoned Mine Land funds.
“Our coal miners work their entire lives, at risk of life and limb, to provide for their families and fuel our nation. We owe them nothing less than to make sure the pledge of lifetime benefits is preserved. It’s so simple: if you make a promise, you should keep your promise. That’s what I’m fighting for. Today, I stand shoulder to shoulder with our miners rallying today. I always have. And I always will.”