PITTSBURGH – Greene County Commissioner Blair Zimmerman is nervous about losing the roughly $2,300 a month pension he draws for having worked 40 years in area coal mines. “I jokingly tell people when they ask me what I’m going to do, I say, ‘I’m going to run for commissioner until I’m 90 years old,’” he said. “I joke about it, but seriously.”
Zimmerman was among those who advocated on Tuesday during a roundtable discussion held at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 5 for legislation in the U.S. Senate that would direct federal money into the funds that cover the pensions and health care benefits of many of the country’s 120,000 retired mine workers.
Dubbed the Miners Protection Act, the proposal calls for taking excess money in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund and using it to shore up the plans that fund some miners’ pensions and health care benefits.
The bill has attracted support from United Mine Workers of America members whose pensions come from funds that, like their public sector counterparts, took a dive during the Great Recession. Recent bankruptcies by several major coal producers – including Alpha Natural Resources, which previously owned the now-shuttered Emerald Mine in Waynesburg and filed under Chapter 11 last year – add to these anxieties, as does the ratio of a dozen retirees for every miner working today.
The Senate bill cleared the chamber’s finance committee last month with bipartisan support. Bill co-sponsor Sen. Bob Casey also spoke during the roundtable, saying the federal government is obligated under a 70-year-old agreement with UMWA to ensure the security of coal miners’ retirement and urging those present to put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put the measure to a floor vote this year.
“I don’t care how we do it. I don’t care if we pass it alone or if we pass it as part of the so-called continuing resolution to fund the government,” the Democratic senator said. “We just have to get it done.”
A request for comment left with a McConnell staffer Tuesday afternoon wasn’t immediately returned.
The Congressional Budget Office hasn’t submitted an estimate of the costs associated with the bill.
Speakers during the panel discussion also included UMWA District 2 Vice President Ed Yankovich; union officials Frank Reidelbach and Dwayne Thomas, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Yankovich said the average miner collects a pension of about $580 a month. Following the event, he pointed out that coal miners worked for lower wages “because we negotiated for health care.”
Barry Cox, 62, of Carmichaels, was among the audience of retired miners, political staffers and reporters at the event.
Cox, who worked in the Emerald mine for 37 years, echoed Zimmerman’s fear over the future of his retirement benefits.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford my medication,” said Cox, who worked in mines for 37 years and draws a pension of about $2,100 a month and receives disability benefits. “But if we lose the pension, I’ve got to go back to work. If I go back to work, I lose my disability.”