Aging Miners Bat for Continuing Health Coverage amid Wave of Coal Company Bankruptcies

by San Antonio Attorney

Retired coal miners are facing hard times, as a wave of bankruptcies among major US coal companies threaten the workers’ longstanding rights to health coverage benefits.

As the number of US-based coal companies going bankrupt rose to more than 50 in the past few years, retired members of the United Mine Workers Union of America are fearful that the closures may put a stop to their hard-won rights to lifetime health cover, even as company CEO’s continue to enjoy millions of dollars in incentives.

The strain is felt keenly in southern West Virginia, a well-known coal mining area where the membership of unions has plummeted greatly.  According to recent data provided by the Energy Information Administration, only 1,800 union members remain in active duty in District 17, an area that encompasses a total of 36 counties in West Virginia.  The decline is evident across the country, as the number of coal workers in the US decreased by as much as 6-7 percent in 2013-2014, thereby lessening the already dwindling number of unionized workers.

Ron Pauley, a coal miner who retired two years ago after spending more than 33 years in the industry, is an example of how aging workers are adversely affected by the closures.  Beginning his career in a small mine that was eventually sold to Patriot, Pauley survived two bankruptcies with the company, first in 2012 and again in 2015, before he finally decided to retire.  Now even his hard-earned health benefits are put in peril, as coal companies took to Congress to contest their obligations to provide lifetime health cover to workers.

In the meantime, senior management officials and CEO’s of coal companies retained large bonuses—in fact last August, senior officers in Peabody, the largest privately-owned coal company in the world, were awarded a whopping $12 million for reaching performance targets.

Many retired workers are now calling on Congress to legislate a bill that would ensure union members’ rights to healthcare coverage. The Mines Protection Act, filed with complementary versions in both the House and the Senate, mandates the Abandoned Mine Land Fund to allocate sufficient resources to fund the lifetime health benefits of retired union members.

In the past few years, many US coal companies have filed for bankruptcy after the price of thermal coal weakened that of fracked methane gas commonly used in coal mines. Lower Chinese demand for metallurgical coal—the primary product of West Viginia—has furthered the decline of the country’s coal industry, affecting even major players (such as Arch, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot and Peabody) that opted to either reorganize or sell assets.

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