More than 1,200 miners could lose their healthcare by the end of the year, unless Congress takes action on the American Miners Act of 2019. Sponsored by Senator Joe Manchin D-W.Va., the measure, Senate Bill 27, would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer funds to the 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Plan.

Bankruptcy laws are expected to free the Westmoreland Mining Company of its responsibilities under the coal act, leaving many miners – including those suffering from black lung disease – in the lurch.

“They’ve worked for this,” Manchin said. “They’ve negotiated for this. They are not asking for a handout, they are asking to get what they paid for, what they negotiated for, what they didn’t take home to their families. We have to keep our promise that was signed into law in the Krug Lewis Agreement. This goes back to 1946.”

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan will likely be insolvent by 2022 – and even sooner if there are additional bankruptcies.

“Our nation’s coal miners made a commitment to provide our nation with the energy we needed to power our nation to prosperity,” said Manchin. “They did so time and time again even when it risked their health and their lives. It is time for us to keep our full promise to them and ensure their pension benefits are not lost.”

The Protecting American Miners amends the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer funds in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land fund to the 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency. It also raises the cap on these funds from $490 million to $750 million to ensure that there is sufficient funding. The legislation would protect the pensions of 87,000 current beneficiaries and 20,000 more who have vested for their pensions but have not yet begun drawing them. It would also ensure that the miners who are at risk due to the 2018 bankruptcies of both Westmoreland and Mission will not lose their healthcare.

SB27 has had two readings on the floor and is currently in the Committee of Finance.This bill amends the Coal Act to include 2018 bankruptcies in the miners’ healthcare fix that passed in 2017.

How is it paid for?

Manchin says the bill is fully paid for through two provisions:

1. By extending for ten years the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax at $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.55 per ton of surface-mined coal (up to 4.4% of the sales price). This tax is critical for supporting the Black Lung Disability Trust fund, which provides healthcare and benefits to more than 25,000 miners and their dependents.

2. By permitting in-service distributions under a pension plan or a governmental section 457(b) plan at age 59½, thus making the rules for those plans consistent with the rules for section 401(k) plans and section 403(b) plans.

Facts regarding the 1974 pension plan

1. The fund was started in 1946 under an executive order of President Harry Truman and constituted a federal guarantee to the health and welfare of coal miners, creating a “last man’s standing” multiemployer and retirement system for them and their dependents.

2. In 1974, the Employment Retirement Income and Security Act of 1974 caused the above-mentioned fund to split into two separate funds, with the 1974 Pension Plan providing pension benefits to eligible miners who worked on or after January 1, 1976.

3. As a result of extremely depressed coal markets, coal company bankruptcies, layoffs, consolidation, an oppressive regulatory environment and other factors there has been a dramatic decrease the level of employer contributions to the 1974 Plan.

According to Manchin, "If the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan collapses beneficiaries and their dependents will be dropped into the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), destroying that program and requiring the American taxpayer to foot the bill instead of the private sector companies. UMWA 1974 Plan actuaries currently expect the Plan to become insolvent in the 2022-2023 time-frame, however any market downturn will rapidly accelerate insolvency."