Bills to secure miners’ health benefits lack Wyo pol support

GOP Senators Mike Enzi (left) and John Barrasso (right) during a Casper business luncheon in Summer of 2017. (File)

April 30, 2019 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile

Two bills to protect retired Wyoming coal miners’ healthcare benefits from being lost to bankruptcy have been introduced in the U.S. Congress. Neither has the support of any member of Wyoming’s congressional delegation thus far, and it’s unclear if they’ll get it. 

Legislation in both the House and Senate would allow retired members of the labor union United Mine Workers of America affected by 2018 coal company bankruptcies to participate in a preexisting federal program to protect unionized miners left uninsured by previous coal bankruptcies. The covered group would include an estimated 500 retirees from bankrupt Westmoreland Coal Company’s Kemmerer Mine. 

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The program, which receives a $450 million federal appropriation each year, has adequate funds to cover the the affected retirees, according to a UMWA spokesman. 

A bankruptcy judge has allowed Westmoreland to renege on its Kemmerer Mine retiree healthcare obligations as part of the company’s restructuring in bankruptcy.

Brought by Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va), the house bill, H.R. 934, has bipartisan sponsorship with two Republicans from eastern coal mining states joining 11 Democrats. It was introduced Jan. 31. 

On Feb. 19 the House Committee on Natural Resources referred it to the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources which has yet to act on the bill. Wyoming’s lone U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R) is a member of that subcommittee.

Senate bill S. 27 brought by West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin is more expansive but would cover the retired Kemmerer miners’ health care through the same mechanism as H.R. 934. The bill has six sponsors, all of whom are Democrats.

It is before the Senate Finance Committee, where Wyoming’s senior senator Mike Enzi (R) serves. 

The bills are being pushed by the UMWA, which is campaigning on two fronts — the halls of Congress in Washington D.C. and in bankruptcy court in Houston where the Westmoreland case is being heard — to recover the health benefits it believes its miners are contractually owed.  

The union was able to wrangle $6 million from Westmoreland in the bankruptcy court to cover healthcare benefits, but that likely won’t last a year, said Phill Smith, the United Mine Workers of America’s director of government affairs. The union is trying to get more money out of the bankruptcy court, including a portion of fines a consulting company had to pay for malpractice in the proceedings. 

The union “received indications” previously that Wyoming’s two senators are “supportive of preserving healthcare benefits for retired miners,” Smith said, but the sentiment hasn’t yet translated to support.

Enzi was a prominent opponent of a 2016 bill that would have had the federal government bolster a pension fund for UMWA retirees. He said at the time that if the Senate acts it should act to protect retirement benefits for both unionized and non unionized miners, and suggested the union was taking advantage of a crisis affecting all coal miners. 

The large mines that surround Enzi’s hometown of Gillette are not unionized and have suffered through their own waves of mining company bankruptcies. In March, however, Enzi’s office told the Casper Star-Tribune he was reviewing the Kemmerer situation but continued to hold doubts about the bill’s union affiliation.

“[Enzi] is dedicated to working with those whose health care has been impacted by the mine’s bankruptcy, but remains concerned about any legislation that encourages or helps union and private companies to rely on taxpayers when the union and companies fail to deliver on their promises,” an Enzi spokesperson told the newspaper.

Sen. John Barrasso (R) told the newspaper he opposed S. 27 as it was written, but that he was “committed to finding a solution that will lessen the burden on the miners who have been denied the health benefits promise [sic].”

While Manchin’s senate bill deals with retired miners’ pensions as well as health care, H.R. 934 would only cover healthcare for the Kemmerer miners. Though current Kemmerer miners’ pensions are at risk of being diminished, retirees pensions are protected, Smith said. 

Cheney’s views on the House bill are less clear to the union, Smith said. “We have not talked to [Rep.] Cheney,” he said. 

WyoFile did not receive responses to repeated requests for comment from Cheney, Enzi or Barrasso’s offices. 

Cloud Peak Energy, which has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, announced it would stop paying healthcare to retired miners last year. Cloud Peak’s Wyoming workforce, like the majority of the Wyoming coal industry, is not unionized. Other coal companies, including some of Wyoming’s biggest players, have also moved to shed healthcare benefits during bankruptcy proceedings. 

Nonunion coal miners from at least one struggling coal company are fighting back. Nonunion retired coal miners with CONSOL Energy Inc., which does not have Wyoming operations, have sued the company for reducing healthcare benefits they believed they were promised.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.