Congressional sub-committee hears plight of miners amid dwindling pension fund

WASHINGTON, D.C.– While most of the attention on Capitol Hill Wednesday was on the testimony of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in another committee room in another part of the U.S. Capitol, retired coal miners from West Virginia and other states gained a little ground for their families.

After introducing legislation for the past six years in Congress, U.S. Representative David McKinley of West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, was able to testify at the very first hearing for his resolution for the Miners’ Pension Protection Act.

“The problem with the UMWA Pension Fund was not caused by miners and wasn’t caused by employers either. This problem was caused in large part by government policy,” McKinley said before the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

The UMWA Pension fund and healthcare benefits funds, which were negotiated by the Government and the union after a long strike in 1946, are now in jeopardy. Although guaranteed by the Federal Government in that 1946 agreement, and on several occasions since then, the funds hit rocky times with the contributors within the coal industry dwindling.

“There has been a long, long, long undisputed involvement of the federal government since the 1946 strike and the agreement that was reached,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts testified before the committee.

The fund has seen an accelerated decline in the past decade. The startling erosion of the UMWA pension was detailed for the committee in testimony from Lorraine Lewis, executive director of the UMWA Health and Retirement Fund.

“After the 2008 market crash, the plan lost significant market value, but unlike other pension plans it was not in a position to recover its loses,” Lewis said. “The bankruptcy filings of four major coal companies has left too few companies to contribute to the plan.”
Lewis’ figures for the committee showed plain reasons why the fund is in trouble and in need of federal help. In 1994, the pension plan had 577 employers contributing to the fund. Today there are 10. According to Lewis, there are currently 28 pensioners for every working miner, and it’s estimated employers will have to contribute $90 for every hour worked to provide enough funding to back the benefits the fund is providing.

Furthermore, members of the subcommittee learned these aren’t extravagant benefits.

“Over 30% of the plan’s beneficiaries are widows, 9% are retired miners disabled by mine accidents,” she said. “Over 30% of our pensioners receive less than $250 a month and 58% receive less than $500 a month. The average benefit is $596 a month.”
“Given the federal government’s role in making this situation worse, Congress has an obligation to fix it,” McKinley said.


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