WASHINGTON — Congress adjourned this past Wednesday after passing a spending measure to avoid a shutdown but left town without taking up a critical piece of legislation to several thousand retired miners in Southern Illinois intended to salvage their health care and pension benefits.
Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said union leadership remains hopeful that Congress will act before the end of the year. Federal lawmakers are not scheduled to return until after the election. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to reconvene on Nov. 14.
Smith said that it is his understanding that the reason it was not taken up was a scheduling issue, and should not be viewed as a major setback by UMWA members, who in early September traveled to Washington to lobby Congress to act on the bill.
‘We had certainly asked Senate leadership to take a look at taking it up before they left,” Smith said. “But other things were taking up time on the floor and trying to squeeze this in proved to be too much of a stretch.”
Still, Smith said the UMWA believes it is critical that the Senate act sooner rather than later upon their return. He said funds paying health care benefits of about 16,000 people across the country — and including 3,500 in Southern Illinois — will run out of money sometime in the early part of 2017.
In this area, the majority of those who stand to lose health care benefits worked for Peabody Energy. A smaller number of people in this region, those who worked for Alpha Natural Resources, will face the same predicament in July without relief, according to Smith.
The Coal Miners Protection Act also seeks a bailout of the UMWA’s pension plan. Without taxpayer aid, some 120,000 retirees in the latter years of their life may lose their promised benefits as the system is on the brink of collapse because of the large number of retirees drawing down and the small number of active workers paying in.
Smith said Congress in 2006 passed an annual appropriation of up to $490 million to provide health care coverage for UMWA retirees affected by coal company bankruptcies at the time. But only about half of that is drawn down, Smith said.
The measure would add retirees affected by more recent bankruptcies to join the emergency health care fund, therefore taping into more of it. The interest from a reclamation fund paid into by coal companies also is used for the retiree health care fund and would continue to be utilized. The more controversial aspect of the proposal also would allow the UMWA to tap into the unspent portion of that $490 million annual appropriation to shore up its retiree pension plan.
Opponents of the measure say it would set a dangerous precedent for the government to bailout a private pension plan.
Smith argues this deal for UMWA retirees is unique for a couple of reasons. For one, he said the average pension for a retired miner is very low, on average $570 a month, compared to much higher payouts for other union retirees such as the Teamsters union.
“For those who say we should enact benefit cuts to save this pension plan, you cannot cut your way out of this problem when your average pension is $570 a month,” he said. “It’s not enough to solve the problem.”
To his other point, Smith said of the UMWA pension situation, “This is a problem that already has a solution and it’s very easy and there’s already money for retired miners’ benefits. We’re just asking to use it all. There’s not nearly as simple as a solution for any other plans.”
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI