A bi-partisan group of lawmakers are pushing for a solution to a looming pension crisis that could hit thousands of retired coal workers nationwide.
Not even miners who clocked out years ago can escape the repercussions of the quickly shrinking U.S. coal industry. A series of plant closures and bankruptcies have depleted the number of contributions going into retiree benefit programs. A band of Republicans and Democrats from states with a heavy coal presence are fighting to address the financial crunch. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and others are pushing legislation to appropriate federal dollars to refill drained coffers.
As background, the problem dates back over 70 years. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed into law the Lewis-Krug Agreement, which obligated the U.S. government to life-time health and pension benefits for the country’s coal miners. The sweeping deal resulted in workers accepting smaller wages in exchange for lifetime benefits. The deal was reformed in the 1970s, splitting the pension and health care programs into two separate entities.
However, the evolving U.S. energy industry has fomented complications for the system, where environmental regulations and more competitive fuel sources have wreaked havoc on the coal sector. Closed mines, bankrupt coal plants and laid-off workers across the country have resulted in a steep decline in the number of employer contributions to the pension program. Retirees are now at risk of losing their monthly checks. (RELATED: Mine Jobs Are Returning To Coal Country, But There’s A Long Road To Recovery)
As many as 114 multi-employer pension plans will become insolvent — some of them in four years’ time — a 2017 report determined. These plans affect over one million workers. The United Mine Workers of America Pension Fund is most at risk of financial insolvency — projected to go bankrupt by 2022. The UMWA plan covers Around 87,000 retired miners and 20,000 full vested current workers.
“If we’re able to come to the aid of every corporation that has an effect on the economy of this country, then surely to God, we can come to the aid and the help of the people who made this country. That’s what we’re talking about,” West Virginia Sen. Manchin said, during a committee hearing Thursday. The UMWA Pension Fund covers 27,000 retired miners in his state. “We have to agree that we have a crisis on our hands.”
Manchin, who is facing a tough re-election this year, is working on the Select Committee on Solvency of Multi-employer Pension Plans to ensure a legislative solution to protect these benefits. The Democratic senator has introduced the Prioritizing Our Workers Act and the American Miners Pension Act — both bills aim to address the situation.
Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, along with GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and GOP Rep. Mike Bost have also pushed for funding. However, the idea of the federal government footing the bill for broke retiree programs has attracted opposition from conservative circles, who have characterized such a move as a “bailout.”
“The federal government already provides a backstop for failed union and other private pension plans by insuring them through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation,” Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Rachel Dreszler wrote, according to a local report published April 26. “Congress should avoid bailing out select pension plans at all costs and should instead reform the PBGC so that it can meet its obligations without a taxpayer bailout.”
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