Miners union pleads with senators for pension fix

Miners union pleads with senators for pension fix
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The leader of a union for coal industry workers on Tuesday urged senators to act quickly on legislation that would help retired miners and their families who are in danger of losing their pension and healthcare benefits.

“I think the coal miners in this country have been promised these benefits, these coal miners in this country have earned these benefits,” Cecil Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

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“These coal miners in this country have sacrificed greatly to this nation so all of us can have a better way of life, and we urge consideration of this.”

Coal industry employees and their beneficiaries are provided retirement, disability and survivors benefits through the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, which is federally guaranteed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Retired coal miners can receive retiree health benefits through one of three multiemployer plans.

But the program is approaching insolvency due to losses during the financial crisis and the wave of bankruptcies in the coal industry. Roberts said that 21,000 people could lose their health benefits by the end of the year if Congress doesn’t act.

A bill introduced last year by West Virginia Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Wealthy outsiders threaten to shake up GOP Senate primaries MORE (D) and Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenate women: Rules on harassment must change Congress, here's a CO2-smart tax fix to protect, create jobs Women, Dems leading sexual harassment discussion in Congress: analysis MORE (R) would transfer excess funds from the Abandoned Land Mine Fund to the pension plan. It would also allow some retirees who lose health benefits because their former employer have become bankrupt or insolvent to join one of the multiemployer health plans. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

If the legislation isn't passed in the next year or two, “we may not be able to avoid insolvency,” Roberts said.

He argued that passing the legislation would be significantly cheaper than other ways of addressing the pension problem.

“If you’re very much concerned about the taxpayers’ money, then you should pass this bill. If you’re concerned about pensioners, you should pass this bill. If you’re concerned about healthcare, you should pass this bill,” he said.

The legislation has bipartisan support. Both Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney MORE (R-Utah) and ranking member Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Lobbying world MORE (D-Ore.) are in favor of it.

Hatch called the bill “the best option for us.”

Wyden said “it’s my view that this committee and the Congress should move on this bill as soon as possible.”

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes MORE (R-Ohio), who is a co-sponsor of the bill, said coal miners are “hard working guys who deserve better than their getting from their pensions.”

The Washington Post reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) prevented a fix for the pension and health benefits issue from being included in the spending package enacted in December.

"Senator McConnell has been and remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation’s coal miners as well as other retirees, and discussions are ongoing on how best to address this challenge,” McConnell’s office told The Hill.

“He continues to believe this is a very important issue that deserves open, transparent debate through regular order. To that end, he appreciates the Senate Finance Committee holding a public hearing today to examine a number of challenges in the multiemployer pension world, including how to help current and retired coal miners." 

The problems facing the miners are part of a broader trend of multi-employer pension plans being severely underfunded.

When multi-employer plans default, the PBGC pays pensions to retirees up to a certain amount. But a default from the UMWA plan and others could lead to the PBGC itself to go bankrupt.

In 2014, Congress passed the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA), which was included in a spending bill. The MPRA allows plans that are headed toward insolvency to reduce benefits if they get approval from the Treasury Department. These cuts would still allow retirees to receive more than they would from the PBGC.

Already, the Central States Pension Fund, which benefits Teamsters, has applied to Treasury to make cuts. Rita Lewis, a widow of a retired Teamster from Ohio, testified that the proposed cuts to the Central States plan could reduce pension benefits by as much as 40 to 70 percent.

Hatch said that the MPRA was “the best option available at the time” and that it would be difficult to enact a bailout of the PBGC.

The Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee sent a letter to Hatch Tuesday that urges Republicans to work with them on a “comprehensive solution” to the pension crisis.

Updated at 3:51 p.m.