Warner calls for action to protect miner benefits before impending deadline

mark warner newU.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) met this week with Southwest Virginia coal miners from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) at his office in Washington, D.C.

During the meeting, Sen. Warner stressed the need to pass the American Miners Act, legislation he sponsored that would permanently protect the healthcare and pension benefits for thousands of Virginia’s retired coal miners and their families.

The bill will also protect healthcare coverage for 500 Virginia miners who are at risk of losing their benefits due to the 2018 bankruptcy of Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Co., which previously operated in Wise County, VA. During the meeting, miners and union representatives told Sen. Warner that Westmoreland miner benefits are currently expected to run out no later than October.

“The Westmoreland miners’ healthcare benefits are about to run out, and that’s a crisis for these miners and their families,” said Sen. Warner. “Southwest Virginia’s retired coal miners worked hard to power this country, and the least we can do is make sure they’re able to retire with the pensions and benefits they earned. The American Miners Act would protect the hard-earned benefits these miners and their families count on, while also making sure we’ve got the resources necessary to address the black lung outbreak in coal country.”

“For some of the miners in my local, people are going to start falling beneath the poverty line if Congress doesn’t do something,” said Gary Kennedy, a retired UMWA mine worker from Appalachia, VA who worked in Westmoreland’s Bullitt Mine. “For some people, it’s going to mean the difference between ‘Do you eat three times a day?’ or ‘do you eat twice?’ ‘Do you pay the power bill?’ ‘or ‘do you buy prescriptions?’ That’s what it’s going to mean.”

Currently, the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan is on the road to insolvency due to coal company bankruptcies and the 2008 financial crisis. The American Miners Act of 2019 will shore up the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan to make sure that 87,000 current beneficiaries and an additional 20,000 retirees who have vested won’t lose the pensions they have paid into for decades. In Virginia alone, there are approximately 7,000 pensioners who are at risk of losing their benefits if Congress does not act.

In May 2017, Sen. Warner worked with several colleagues to pass bipartisan legislation to protect healthcare for retired miners – including more than 10,000 miners and their families in Virginia – who were orphaned by coal bankruptcies. But the recent Westmoreland bankruptcy has endangered health care benefits for additional miners and dependents – including 500 people in Virginia. This legislation will extend the fix to ensure that miners who are at risk due to 2018 coal company bankruptcies will not lose their healthcare.

Lastly, the bill also calls for an extension of the tax that finances medical treatment and basic expenses for miners suffering from black lung. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was established in 1978 to pay benefits to disabled miners suffering from black lung disease when the coal company responsible for paying benefits is bankrupt, closed or otherwise not able to pay. More than 25,000 coal miners and their dependents rely on the fund. The fund, which due to a variety of factors is currently more than $4 billion in debt, is supported by an excise tax that was cut in half at the end of 2018. The American Miners Act of 2019 will extend the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax at $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.55 per ton of surface-mined coal for ten years. You can read his Bristol Herald Courier op-ed on the legislation here.

Sen. Warner is a strong advocate for coal miners and their families. In August 2018, he introduced and passed into law legislation to improve early detection and treatment ofblack lung disease among coal miners. 

The American Miners Act of 2019 is also sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Doug Jones (D-AL) and Bob Casey (D-PA). For more information on the American Miners Act of 2019, click here.

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