Government Funding Plan To Include Lifelong Benefits For Certain Coal Miners

Dec 18, 2019

New division of an appropriations bill to be included in the final funding package
Credit Congressional Research Service

A bill that would secure lifelong pension and healthcare benefits has been incorporated into the final funding package to keep the U.S. government open past Friday, December 20.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the appropriations bill, though Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney voted against it. The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on it, followed by President Donald Trump, who has until this Friday to make a decision.

The Bipartisan American Miners Act would ensure $750 million be set aside for lifelong pension and healthcare benefits for nearly 100,000 miners-specifically those who worked for three recently-bankrupt coal companies all represented by the union United Mine Workers of America (UMWA): Mission Coal, Murray Energy, and Westmoreland Coal.

Hundreds of retirees from the Kemmerer Mine in southwest Wyoming who lost health insurance post-bankruptcy could benefit from the proposed legislation.

Phil Smith, UMWA's director of communications and government affairs, said this a huge win for miners nationwide.

"For some of these folks, this is the difference between life and death. They're on prescription drugs to keep them alive, which they would not be able to afford without this," he said.

Healthcare benefits are set to run out on December 31 for Westmoreland retirees.

It's the third time this bill has come up. Each has aimed to shore up the 1974 Pension Plan, which was headed to insolvency due to the high number of recent coal bankruptcies and the 2008 financial crisis.

Smith said these bills have become necessary as coal companies normalize voiding benefits during reorganization.

"Companies can and they are using the bankruptcy process to get out of their obligations to their workers and to their retirees. There's now a playbook that companies use to do that."

In early November, Wyoming's two senators sent statements opposing the bill pointing to where funds would be pulled from: the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund.

Back then, Sen. Barrasso's office said, "Sen. Barrasso is opposed to any legislation that would result in certified states losing AML grants or divert from the AML trust fund."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.