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2/07/2005

COAL COMPANY, COURTS HAND DOWN COAL INSTEAD OF PROMISED BENEFITS

BY SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER (D-WV)

To right a bankrupt coal company’s disregard for its responsibilities and a court that failed to act on behalf of America's workers, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV)on Jan. 25 introduced legislation to address the health care needs of thousands of miners, retirees and their beneficiaries.

“Congressman Rahall and I introduced this legislation because, in West Virginia and in other states, coal companies have used bankruptcy to eliminate health coverage for miners and their families,” said Rockefeller, author of the 1992 Coal Act. “This is a morally bankrupt corporate strategy that hurts the people who have earned these benefits through years of hard work.”

“No judge should rewrite the law and take workers’ health coverage away. This bill will make sure that there are no more Horizon rulings in the future,” Rockefeller said.

“I cannot imagine a more callous manner in which to acknowledge workers for their service than a company running away from its obligations. Instead of providing the benefits it promised, Horizon, with the court’s blessing, is handing out lumps of coal,” declared Rahall, Ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee. “Armed with an egregious court decision, Horizon took years of the hard work and the loyalty of thousands of employees and their families and heartlessly tossed it out the window. I will not stand by while this court decision sends the message that financial bankruptcy is an excuse for moral bankruptcy.”

“I have always believed that a fair day’s labor deserves a fair day’s wages. I believe, too, that a company has certain obligations to a faithful worker who has devoted his life to laboring for the good of the company. It has been here, in the halls of Congress, where these beliefs have found refuge,” Rahall said.

In September 2004, a federal judge allowed Horizon to use bankruptcy loopholes to escape its obligations to provide health care benefits to its current and retired workers. This responsibility is required under the 1992 Coal Act, yet it was waived for Horizon's more than 800 workers and 2,300 retirees, including approximately 200 workers and 500 retirees in West Virginia.

In turn, the cost of the benefits legally owed by Horizon has been thrown onto already financially-strained benefits plans. Consequently, Horizon and the courts, have sent a shock wave that jeopardizes the health care benefits of thousands of other retirees and beneficiaries. The weight of those obligations cannot long be managed in the current scenario. And if other companies follow suit, collapse will only be hastened.

The bill reiterates the Coal Act’s mandate that bankruptcy courts do not have the authority to modify or terminate any coal company’s health care obligations. The legislation reinforces the original intent of the Coal Act and directly addresses the misguided ruling in the Horizon case.

TAKE ACTION TO HELP REFORM FEDERAL BANKRUPTCY LAWS


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