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Economy & Business

Benefits In Jeopardy For Retired Union Coal Miners

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Pharmacist Scott Adamson, left, talks with a customer at McCracken Pharmacy in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Like a lot of municipalities in western Pennsylvania, Waynesburg is home to many retired coal miners.

Emerald Mine sits dormant just beyond the boundary of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Conveyor belts undulate over hundreds of yards of open land. After 38 years of continuous operation, the mine closed in 2015. Danny Ollum remembers the last time it was quiet there.  “I used to play Little League baseball where that coal mine was. It was called the Emerald Field. Years ago. And then next thing you know, boom. A coal mine comes up.”


At the bar of VFW Post 4793, Ollum bought a Miller High Life before heading for a side room. It’s a good place to talk, he said. Except for a dark BINGO board, and a few folding chairs, the room is empty and quiet. Outside, a long train of open coal cars rumbles past.


Pennsylvania led the nation in coal production until the 1930s. At its peak in 1918, more than 200 million tons of coal left the state to fuel factories, locomotives, ships, and trains. Even now, the commonwealth remains a major producer, ranking fifth in 2015, the latest year for which data were available. Greene County, tucked into the far southwestern corner of the state, but smack-dab in the center of a bituminous coal field, generated more than half of it.


Ollum didn’t work at Emerald Mine, but the nearby Cumberland Mine. He retired after 40 years underground. “Most people hang in there until 65 but I been run over by different equipment and hurt and cave-ins and everything like that you know, so, it was time.”


He always figured by the time he got to retirement he wouldn’t have much to worry about besides spending time with his family or fishing with friends. But now he worries he might not be able to count on having health care or a pension.


“I give them 40 years. Why can’t I have 20?”


Coal companies normally pay into health care and pension funds administered by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), but some companies have gone bankrupt. In those proceedings, some have been relieved of their obligation to pay for workers’ benefits. But over years of contract negotiations, miners often accepted smaller salaries in exchange for peace of mind, said Ed Yankovich.


“We could have made a lot more money in the mines, but we were worried about lifetime health care. So we negotiated lower wages so we could have lifetime healthcare. Now for that not to be honored is wrong.”


Yankovich is vice president for the UMWA’s District Two. His office in Uniontown could be a tiny coal museum: union posters from the 1970s, miner figurines, a lump of coal. He said it’s hard not to think about miners’ history in here.


“If it wasn't for the miners, we wouldn't have the country we [have] today.They were in a big part responsible for the success of the industrial revolution in this country and building this country to as great as it was. And there was a big toll paid for that.”


While President Donald Trump has promised to revive coal, that wouldn’t bring back companies that have already closed up shop. Without Congressional action, 22,500 retired miners nationwide could lose their health care. It’s the first thing Dave Vansickle thinks about each morning, and the last thing he thinks about each night, he said.


“It’s just a hard pill to swallow. I mean, all those years it was promise, promise, promise. And then through bankruptcy, everything’s thrown away.”


Legislation would first shore up UMWA’s health care, and then send any leftover funds to pensions. Like a lot of pensions, the UMWA’s fund took a hit during the recession. But the union says an infusion of cash now will ensure its long-term stability.


Rachel Greszler is a senior policy analyst in economics and entitlements at the Heritage Foundation. It’s unfair that miners won’t receive the benefits they counted on, she said, but that’s not the government’s job to fix.


“The issue is just where do you draw the line? And I think that it has to be that these people are going to have to go to Medicare and the ACA, and that’s tough.


But the Heritage Foundation supports repealing the Affordable Care Act. While the options available to miners might not be as generous, government-subsidized health care isn’t going away, said Greszler. There’s a Congressional precedent to intervene in miners’ health care, but as far as pensions go, it’s dangerous to set a precedent of funding union pension benefits, said Greszler. Vansickle worries about what happens if they don’t.


“What a lot of people don’t realize, there was so many coal miners in this area that if this legislation doesn’t get passed these people aren’t going to have the money to spend and it will actually destroy communities,” he said.


Two blocks north of the Waynesburg VFW is McCracken Pharmacy, owned by pharmacist Scott Adamson. He cares for a lot of retired coal miners, and doesn’t really want to think about what would happen to his patients or his town if the health and pension funds dry up.


“We still set on quite a bit of bituminous coal and that has been a huge part of our economy. It’s intertwined in everything.”


Across the country the UMWA sends more than a billion dollars in pension and health benefits to communities like Waynesburg. Retired miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone account for nearly half of the organization’s pension fund. Those monthly checks pay taxes, buy food, and other goods.


In case his benefits disappear, Dave Vansickle is setting aside whatever he can for medicines and health care. But there’s something he can’t set aside.


“You always think about leaving something to your kids, you know. A little bit of legacy. And I always wanted that, I was going to have something for my children. But this is going to take that away. It’s something.”


Bills to help fund miners health and pension benefits have been introduced in the House and Senate. They’re still in committee.