September 21, 2016

Sen. Joe Manchin: Time to protect miners is now | Charleston Gazette Mail

In June, after months of negotiations and urging, the Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch personally promised me the Miners Protection Act would receive a vote in the Finance Committee.

Today is the day that this important legislation will be marked up in committee, bringing it one step closer to passage into law. This is long overdue and I will not stop working to fulfill the commitment that we made to our miners 70 years ago.

My grandfather came from Italy in 1900 and started working in the coal mines at the age of 9. In 1927, he had a wife and 5 kids. He couldn’t pay his bills, the health care was inadequate and he knew there had to be a better way of life than owing your soul to the company store.

On Christmas Eve 1927, the company came and threw my family out in the cold because my grandfather was trying to improve the quality of life for all coal miners. Fighting for the rights of coal miners is ingrained in my family history, and we have always understood that miners deserve better benefits, better health care and a better quality of life.

The strike ended one week later with the announcement of the Krug-Lewis Agreement, and since that historic day, our country has honored our commitment to secure the health and retirement of our miners.

Sadly, today, our miners are faced with a crisis. If we do not act now, 16,000 miners will lose their health care at the end of this year. Then 3,500 miners will lose their health care in March, and another 3,500 miners will lose their health care in July. A total of 23,000 miners are going to lose their health care if we don’t do something now.

In addition to the terrifying fact that they may lose their health benefits, these miners and widows face the potential loss of their pension incomes. The 1974 United Mine Works of America Pension Plan (UMWA Plan) was well-managed and well-funded prior to the 2008 financial crisis — in fact, it was 94 percent funded.

But, coupled with the fact that 60 percent of the beneficiaries are “orphans” whose employers are no longer in business and the fact that only 10,000 active workers are contributing for about 120,000 retirees, the effects of the financial crisis mean the plan can no longer avoid insolvency.

In fact, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation confirmed earlier this year that, if Congress does nothing, the PBGC will have to assume the liabilities of the UMWA Plan. The PBGC projects it would only be able to provide financial assistance to the UMWA Plan for one to three years before exhausting its own multi-employer pension fund.

The PBGC has also acknowledged that such assistance would “be a significant factor in PBGC’s multi-employer fund insolvency and will accelerate that insolvency by a number of months.” That insolvency would fall fully on the shoulders of the taxpayers.

Fortunately, we can help avoid this outcome by passing the Miners Protection Act which utilizes an existing annual appropriation to shore up the UMWA Plan.

The earned benefits that these miners receive from the UMWA Plan average about $572 a month. So, we are not talking about lavish pensions — we are talking about paying for groceries and utility bills. We are talking about the basic nuts and bolts of a hard-earned retirement.

We have just returned from the longest Congressional recess in history and people are already running for the door with unfinished business. If we do not pass this bill now, retired miners and their dependents will receive letters notifying them of the expiration of their health care benefits — notifying them that they will be forced to make some very difficult choices very soon.

If we do not act now, we will be forcing our retirees suffering from black lung, who gave not only their years of service but also sacrificed their health, to choose between getting that oxygen tank they rely on to breathe or paying their electric bill. Surviving widows will be forced to choose between buying their blood pressure medicine or putting food on their tables.

Our coal miners are some of the hardest-working people in America, and they have dedicated their lives to powering our nation and keeping it the strongest in the world. We have a responsibility to protect their hard-earned pensions and health benefits. The Miners Protection Act is a bipartisan solution with Democratic and Republican co-sponsors. And it must be passed into law without delay.

The solution is obvious and to ignore it is simply immoral. We cannot break for another recess without moving forward with a solution to this urgent problem. Our retired miners and their widows deserve better. Time is up.