Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Editorials

March 1, 2013

Retired coal miners: Pension, benefits must be protected

The pension and lifetime health benefits that thousands of retired coal miners and their families were once promised are now in jeopardy. That’s why the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act — legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. — is of great importance to our region.

Rockefeller was joined last week by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts in announcing the legislation, and the importance of preserving promised benefits to miners.

“In West Virginia, a promise made is a promise kept,” Rockefeller correctly notes. “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. 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.”

“This effort is about justice, about integrity, and about keeping faith with the federal obligation to the health and welfare of our coal miners,” Rahall added.

The retirees are facing uncertainty because the UMWA’s 1974 pension plan, which covers more than 100,000 mine workers, including more than 35,000 West Virginians, is severely underfunded and on the road to insolvency — a result of the recent financial crisis and fewer contributions to the plan, according to Rockefeller.

In addition, Rockefeller says Patriot Coal, a spin-off from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, is facing bankruptcy. That could mean more than 12,000 retired miners, including nearly 7,000 West Virginians and their dependents, would lose health benefits, and the 1974 pension plan would be further crippled.

Rockefeller’s act seeks to provide certainty and peace of mind to retirees and their families. In addition to holding employers accountable for the commitments they make to their workers, the legislation 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 any retiree who loses benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1992 benefit plan, which was established under the coal act and provides health benefits to retired or disabled miners and their families.

• Provide that employer contributions 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.

It is critical that this legislation pass — and that all coalfield community lawmakers support the act. Coal miners are rightfully entitled to their promised pension and health benefits. Passage of the Coalfield  Accountability and Retired Employee Act would ensure that this promise is kept.

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