“This has been a passion of mine for years,” Robinson said in a press conference that day, co-hosted by the National Black Lung Association, Appalachian Voices and Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “I’m so happy it’s in the House … I’m working with 15 widows in Southwest Virginia. And to hear their experiences of losing their husband alone, but also when they get their benefits taken away, it breaks their heart.”
Robinson is the vice president of the National Black Lung Association and the president of her local chapter in Southwest Virginia. She’s married to a former coal miner, John, who has black lung disease. For years, Robinson has been a resource for coal miners with black lung disease and their family members.
Conversations with miners and families led Robinson to learn that surviving dependents of coal miners with black lung disease have trouble applying for the black lung benefits stipend.
The monthly stipend is part of the black lung benefits program, which was created in 1969 after years of advocacy from health advocates and coal miners. Advocates had been fighting for recognition of the disease that was devastating the coalfields of Appalachia. Because the disease is avoidable if companies take measures to protect their employees, and because of the important work and risks coal miners take, Congress set up a benefits system to ensure miners who get the disease receive a modest monthly compensation and health care. The coal company responsible for the miner’s illness is supposed to provide these benefits, but there’s also a federal fund to provide benefits if the company is no longer able to.
When a coal miner thinks they are suffering from black lung disease, they can apply for black lung benefits. Surviving dependents of the coal miner are also eligible to receive the stipend. For many households, the miner was the primary source of income, so the stipend was a lifeline for families. And often, the end-of-life care for miners with black lung is so labor intensive that it’s difficult for dependents to balance taking care of them and working outside the home.
If a miner had already been approved for lifetime benefits before they passed away, it’s a relatively simple process for the dependent to continue receiving the monthly stipend. But Robinson learned that in her community, widows in particular were facing difficulty in applying for the stipend if the miner passed away before they went through the black lung claims process.
One reason for the difficulty is a change to that black lung benefits system that happened in 1981. At the time, the Reagan administration was concerned that the black lung benefits system was approving claims for too many miners and dependents. According to The Washington Post, more than 6,000 coal miners marched in Washington, D.C., to protest rollbacks to the black lung benefits program.
The Reagan administration went through with the attacks, changing some of the eligibility presumptions, which led to a severe decrease in the number of miners who were approved over time. Today, less than a third of miners who apply ultimately receive benefits. And many more miners never bother applying because they’ve heard how difficult the process is from friends and colleagues who’ve attempted. It can be hard to compile work history and other documentation needed to apply, understand the process, and get medical records.
Relief for Survivors of Miners Act and Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act
Through her role in the Black Lung Association, Robinson continued to meet with coal miners and families impacted by black lung disease. She was able to coordinate a meeting between surviving dependents to meet with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in the summer of 2020.
“He took his jacket off, loosened his tie, and walked from table to table at the meetup asking the women, ‘let me hear your story,’” Robinson said in an interview for a past article in The Appalachian Voice.
These conversations led Warner to craft legislation that would address the procedural problems dependents were facing. This legislation, called the Relief for Survivors Act in the Senate, was first introduced in the Senate in 2021. The bill re-establishes a provision in the black lung benefits law that anti-coal-miner legislators removed in 1981. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Bob Casey, D-Pa., John Fetterman, D-Pa.,, Tim Kaine, D-Va., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va., reintroduced the bill in July 2023.
And, on Dec. 13, thanks to the continued advocacy of the Black Lung Association, miners and other miner advocates such as Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, the bill had its first introduction in the House, by Congressmembers Morgan McGarvey, D-Ky., and Matt Cartwright, D-Pa. In addition to reestablishing the provision that was removed in 1981, it also aims to encourage more attorneys to take on black lung cases on behalf of surviving dependents. Currently just over one-third of miners have attorney representation when they apply for black lung benefits.
Access to representation is important because coal companies have their own lawyers who will do all they can to argue that a miner didn’t get black lung disease from the company. And it can be exceptionally difficult for a surviving dependent to prove that their loved one died of black lung disease if they are trying to navigate the black lung claims process without legal representation, all while grieving the loss of their loved one.
This is an important time for lawmakers to focus on legislation that would benefit coal miners with black lung disease. Rates of black lung disease have been on the rise for over two decades, particularly in Central Appalachia, where 20% of coal miners with 25 years of experience have the disease.
There’s another bill that would bring relief to families experiencing black lung disease. The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act has also been reintroduced in both chambers this Congress. This bill contains a similar incentive to encourage more attorneys to get involved in black lung cases.
Just as important, it will tie the monthly black lung stipend to inflation. When Congress created the stipend, lawmakers set it at a fraction of the salary for one of the lowest-paid federal employees. And federal employees often don’t get a salary increase that matches inflation, meaning the same for coal miners. An Appalachian Voices and Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center report released this year found that while inflation increased 8% entering 2023, the monthly stipend for a coal miner with black lung increased just 4%.
Together, these bills are a part of the repayment that our country owes coal miners who powered our country for so long. While miner advocates are fighting to reduce incidences of black lung in the first place, it’s important to take care of miners and families who contract the disease.
“This is a moral imperative,” said McGarvey at the Dec. 13 press conference. “And for people who say they support our coal miners, they need to get on board with these efforts to truly, truly, give the survivors of these coal miners that were earned.”