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Health benefits here to stay, but pension issue looms for retired coal workers

Members of the United Mine Workers of America protest in Washington, D.C. in September of 2016.
Flickr | AFGE
Members of the United Mine Workers of America protest in Washington, D.C. in September of 2016.

Retired coal workers are no longer at risk of losing their union health insurance as the latest federal spending bill funded coverage that is no longer being paid for by bankrupt coal companies.

But the deal left another issue untouched: the looming insolvency of the union’s pension fund, which could run out of money as early as 2025.

Payments hang in the balance for about 90,000 people, including 79-year-old Delmar Wright and his wife in Du Quoin, Illinois. Wright ran bulldozers and other machinery in a surface mine for 32 years, and receives a pension of less than $1,000 each month.

“We get Social Security, both of us. We get by on a little over $40,000 a year, which is good for retired people with a high school education,” Wright said. "But my insurance, you can't put a value on it." 

The agreement passed by Congress transferred funds from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund into a multi-employer health plan held by the United Mine Workers of America. That's enough to cover about 22,000 retirees and their dependents who worked for coal companies that have filed for bankruptcy in recent years.

Though the union had pressed Congress to also bolster the pension fund, the version of the law that passed did not address the issue.

“Our fight is not over,” United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts wrote in a statement. “We have been working on preserving the pensions since the Great Recession of 2008-09 caused this problem.”

Coal is an industry that shrank very quickly.

Factor in a wash of coal company bankruptcies, the proliferation of non-union mines and mechanization that reduced the need for labor, there are fewer coal workers paying into the union's pension fund than retirees who are receiving benefits.

According to recent assessment by the Congressional Research Service, the ratio is 1 active worker for 10 retirees.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB