FOR IMMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 8, 2024
Trey Pollard – firstname.lastname@example.org – 202-904-9187
COAL COUNTRY — A new analysis from Appalachian Voices and Appalachian Citizens Law Center finds that the cost of living is significantly higher than black lung benefits payments received by many miners with black lung and their families, illustrating the urgent need for congressional action to update how benefits are calculated and deployed. Incorporating new data from 2023, the report — Benefits for Coal Miners with Black Lung Falling Behind — finds that in some places, benefit payments are more than $3,000 short of the average monthly cost of living for a miner and a dependent.
“The fact that so many miners who sacrificed their health to power our country are now being forced to choose between paying rent and buying groceries is a national emergency, and it’s time Congress took the simple steps required to solve this problem now,” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “The cost-of-living crisis in our country is dramatically compounded for miners with black lung who can’t work and count on benefits to meet their basic needs. The black lung benefits system is broken, and Congress needs to immediately ensure these benefits can truly support the people who have earned and need them.”
In 1969, when the federal black lung benefits program was created, a miner received $144.50 each month to help support their cost of living. Adjusting for inflation, that would be $1,172.61 in today’s dollars. However, the monthly benefit rate has not kept up with rising inflation and, today, individual miners receive over 30% less than the value of the original amount — just $773 a month. The benefits for a miner and a dependent in 2024 is $1,159 a month — more than $3,000 lower than the average cost of living for two people in coal communities like Indiana County, Pennsylvania; Pike County, Kentucky; and Kanawha County, West Virginia.
Benefit levels are currently tied to the federal pay scale rather than the cost of living, which disconnects benefit levels from inflation. Therefore, congressional action is required to align payments to miners with the actual cost of living. However, Congress has not acted to resolve this issue. As a consequence, throughout 2023 inflation rates were 8% but benefit levels increased by just 4%, meaning many miners were left to make up the difference as prices on everything increased.
“Many in Congress seem to talk a lot about protecting miners and curbing inflation, but they haven’t yet backed policies that can help do both in one quick step,” said Quenton King, Federal Legislative Specialist for Appalachian Voices. “A simple fix to tie benefits to the cost of living can provide stability, certainty and a lifeline to sick miners and their families. Congress shouldn’t wait another day before advancing the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act.”
Reintroduced in November by U.S. Sens Bob Casey, D-Pa., John Fetterman, D-Pa., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Tim Kaine, D-Va., Mark Warner, D-Va. and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act provides a step in the right direction. That bill would increase benefits to account for years when there was a federal pay freeze and, going forward, would tie benefit levels to cost of living adjustments rather than federal pay raises. If Congress passes the BLBIA this year, benefits would increase by $29.70 per month, from $773 to $802 per month. Moreover, the bill would help miners secure legal representation throughout the claims process and crack down on unethical conduct by attorneys and doctors who utilize biased or inaccurate medical evidence developed by coal companies
Coal miners who are disabled from black lung, as well their surviving dependents, are entitled by law to modest living and medical benefits. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund pays for these benefits in cases where the miners’ employer has gone bankrupt or where no coal company can be identified as responsible for the miner’s disease. While funding for this trust fund was permanently extended in the Inflation Reduction Act, action has not yet been taken to ensure the benefits paid out are in line with what miners and families need to survive.