In an exclusive interview with News Channel 11, U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA) shared his stances on key issues impacting Southwest Virginia coal miners and their families.
Hundreds of Appalachian miners are out of a job after their employer, Blackjewel LLC, abruptly filed for bankruptcy. Those miners say they’re still without pay for work they’ve already done after more than a month.
“The operators should’ve been able to give some kind of notice, whether it was required by law or not, to the workers so that they didn’t find themselves suddenly having their paychecks yanked back.”
As the coal industry continues to decline, Griffith said he supports expedited training programs that get miners into new industries, using old skills.
“Instead of having a longer program we need a shorter program that just brushes up the skills they’ve already learned in the mines,” he said. “They know how to operate heavy equipment with computers. What they don’t have is a certificate.”
Black Lung Benefits
Former miners, disabled by black lung disease, face a different challenge when coal companies go bankrupt.
When an employer declares bankruptcy, modest living and medical benefits for miners are sustained by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
Many miners fear their benefits are in jeopardy after Congress failed to extend the decades-old excise tax that sustains the fund.
“I will make sure to the best of my ability that that fund is always going to be solvent,” Griffith said. “What the right number is, I don’t know that we actually know right now.”
More than one hundred miners and family members recently traveled to Washington D.C. to demand Congress restore the former tax rate with a ten-year extension.
The current rate is less than half of what it used to be.
Some miners who made the trip expressed disappointment with Griffith’s and U.S. Sen Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) refusal to commit to restoring the former tax rate.
Griffith said coal companies should have to pay “every penny” for black lung benefits through this tax but new operators shouldn’t be responsible for paying off debt accumulated before their time.
“The coal operators I think make a legitimate point that ‘why are we paying for debt that was incurred in the 1970s by companies that no longer exist,'” Griffith said. “If the federal government waives some interest or if we forgave some of that loan amount then that would help the miner and the coal operator whose trying to make a business in a tough environment right now.”
A bill by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) seeks, in part, “to reduce the backlog of black lung benefits claims still awaiting consideration.”
Griffith said he agrees with the bill’s sentiment but he’s yet to read it.
“I would support a streamlining of the process. I do think it takes too long to get the black lung benefits,” said Griffith.
Preventing Black Lung
Griffith said he’s in favor of efforts to prevent black lung.
He said he’d support legislation that would direct stricter regulation of silica dust in mines, which experts say is one of the leading causes of advanced black lung.
Griffith said he also supports mandatory periodic lung screenings for all miners and new breathing equipment requirements.
“If it comes to the safety of the miner and protecting their lungs I’m willing to look at anything,” Griffith said.