Monthly Benefit Rate Hasn’t Kept Up With Cost of Living or Inflation, Leaving Sick Miners and Their Families without an Adequate Safety Net
COAL COUNTRY — This morning, advocates for miners with black lung and their families released a new report detailing how black lung benefit payments have fallen far behind the cost of living, putting ailing miners and their dependents among the most at risk as inflation continues to rise. The new analysis from the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and Appalachian Voices finds that, as inflation has skyrocketed, benefits for miners haven’t kept pace.
In 1969, when the federal black lung benefits program was first created, single miners with 0 dependents received $144.50 per month. The report indicates that, adjusted for inflation, that figure today should be $1,204.70 — however, those miners only actually receive $738 per month under current law. That means the current benefits paid to miners is valued at 40% less than the benefits paid out when the federal black lung benefits program was created more than 50 years ago.
“After sacrificing their health and well-being to power our country, miners and their families struggling with a black lung diagnosis shouldn’t have to pinch pennies to survive,” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “But the current law ignores inflation and ignores rising prices, leaving disabled coal miners behind. This report should be a clarion call to Congress that, in their efforts to tackle inflation, they must take urgent action to ensure black lung benefits can truly support the people who have earned and deserve them. Anything less is a failure to support our communities during the ongoing cost of living crisis.”
The new report finds that at the beginning of 2023, inflation rates hit 8% but benefit levels increased by just 4%, leaving many miners and their families to struggle to make up the difference as the price of food, gas and medicine continue to rise. Presently, the cost of living in coal-mining counties in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky is approximately three-and-a-half to four times higher than the monthly black lung benefits rate. Last Congress, several members of Congress from coal states introduced the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act to address this issue, among others.
“Thousands of miners who suffer from the horrible effects of black lung disease are exploited by coal company lawyers who prevent mine workers and their families from receiving the benefits they deserve,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (PA-08). “Mine workers and their survivors deserve a fair benefits system based on unbiased medical advice. This bill helps ensure disabled coal miners who deserve black lung benefits won’t be unfairly denied and that the benefits they receive will keep up with rising costs of living.”
“For generations, our brave coal miners have worked to power our nation to greatness and as a result, many now suffer from black lung disease,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV). “After their enormous sacrifices, West Virginia miners are entitled to the vital medical care and economic support they have earned. Many recipients of black lung benefits are living month-to-month on limited and fixed incomes. These benefits are not just supplementing an early retirement — they are replacing an income for many years that may be needed to support children, aging or sick parents, and education costs, and it is critical that we ensure the benefits are sufficient. The study released today will help inform policy aimed at addressing the needs of coal miners and their families across Appalachia, and I’m grateful to the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and Appalachian Voices for their tireless efforts to improve black lung benefits.”
In federal law governing the benefit system, benefit levels are currently tied to the federal pay scale rather than the cost of inflation, meaning congressional action is required to align payments to miners with the actual cost of living. However, Congress has not acted to resolve this issue.
“We need a raise for our benefits because with so many young people getting this disease, they will struggle to take care of their families,” said Gary Hairston, President of the National Black Lung Association. “Even if you are just a one-person household, you struggle to live off just the few hundred we receive each month. We need our benefits to match the cost of living.”
“We need an increase in benefits for our miners. They gave their lungs to power America and now we need to take care of them,” said Vonda Robinson, Vice President of the National Black Lung Association.
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. However, just last week, five senators requested that the Government Accountability Office comprehensively study whether the Black Lung benefits program is adequately meeting the needs of miners.
“If Congress is serious about acting to tackle inflation, they need to move quickly to protect our nation’s miners from its serious impacts,” said Chelsea Barnes, Director of Government Affairs and Strategy for Appalachian Voices. “Miners with black lung and their families deserve certainty and stability, and a simple fix to tie their benefits to the cost of living can provide that and give them the safety net they’ve earned.”