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Miners frustrated with benefits extension

By DANIEL TYSON

The Register-Herald

PINEVILLE, W.Va.  — Paul Farrington spent his youth digging coal from mines in Wyoming County.

Now, the Merle Haggard look-alike is fighting a series of medical problems related to his three decades underground, from diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis.

The conditions in mines, he said, are just conducive for health problems, damp, coal dust, hazardous conditions.

“When you walk into those mines, your body starts going south … that’s all there is to it,” he said.

When Congress only extended health and pension benefits for 16,000 retired union miners for four months in early December, Farrington and fellow retiree Fred Blankenship viewed that as Washington welshing on a 70-year-old promise. In 1946, the government struck a deal with the union guaranteeing a lifetime pension and benefits if miners did not strike. However, with the coal industry in free fall, the benefits fund supported by mining companies has shrunk and is slated to run out of money in two weeks.

Congressional Republicans said they aren’t breaking a promise. A spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan said the benefits were not extended for a full year because $45 million in offsets to cover the cost was not found. The extension expires in late April.

Blankenship and Farrington said they really have little hope Congress will solve the problem, but they say they believe President-elect Donald J. Trump will find a solution. “I think we’ll see Congress pass the buck to Trump,” said Blankenship, who worked in the mines for 35 years.

Farrington stood by shaking his head in agreement. “We’re hoping when Trump gets in he’ll turn things around,” he said.

However, conservative groups have opposed shoring up the fund, calling it a government bailout. The Heritage Institute stated funding the benefits would “encourage employers, unions and pension fund trustees to promise substantial pension benefits to their employees without setting aside the funds to pay for those benefits,” wrote Rachel Greszler, an analyst for the foundation, in a blog post in September.

House Republicans would not detail why a solution couldn’t be found before adjourning for Christmas break. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va,, who is sponsoring a bill to create long-term funding for the benefits, said in a statement, “It’s disappointing to see only a short-term extension of benefits at this time.” But, he added, the four-month extension “has now given us a chance to fight another day.”

McKinley said he spoke with incoming House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who committed to working toward a long-term solution. Frelinghuysen’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., who pushed for longer-term funding, also was unavailable for an interview. He said in a statement, “A promise made should be a promise kept” for retirees. He pledged to continue to pursue funding.

Miners scoff at the notion it’s a bailout. “We earned it,” said Farrington. “It’s not something we’re taking from the government. We earned it.”

Blankenship quickly added, “Going into the mines every day might not affect you when you are young, but it does after you reach a certain age … It was a promise to us.”

Farrington said if the benefits expire it would devastate retired miners who rely on the pension and health care, including him.

For him, it’s simple kitchen table economics. He currently pays about $100 a month for prescriptions, but without the health plan his cost would skyrocket to more than $1,000 a month. Then his monthly income would shrink by about half, as his pension disappears.

“It means just quitting and lying down and dying,” he said.

The United Mine Workers of America doesn’t have the power and influence it once had in Washington, amid dwindling membership numbers. And it probably hurt the cause among House Republicans that the money would help union workers.

“It could get messy,” said Blankenship. “Especially at [union] rallies, if you know what I mean.”

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