When the longtime employees who clocked their days at Westmoreland’s coal mine in Kemmerer envisioned their retirements, they had little reason to worry. Their promised pensions were awaiting them, and their robust and reliable health insurance was set to provide for them through old age. They paid into their pensions for decades, and even took less in wages in order to ensure they would receive quality health coverage well after they left the mine.
By all standards, the workers did everything right. They gave their labor and loyalty to the mine, even as it passed from different hands throughout the years. The union they all belonged to negotiated on behalf of steady wages, a decent pension and, most importantly, reliable health benefits even into retirement.
But as Westmoreland grappled with bankruptcy and making the mine appealing to a new buyer, the hard-earned benefits of Kemmerer’s retired coal miners were among the first casualties.
A bankruptcy judge last month ruled that the mine’s new owner won’t need to make good on the agreements with the workers. And for many of those men and women, the ruling will be devastating.
It seems unconscionable that our legal system is built to favor corporations over hardworking Americans. But that’s exactly how the bankruptcy court works – and unfunded liabilities, like workers’ pensions and health insurance, are quickly neglected in the process.
But these employees paid their dues, literally and figuratively, working in a lifeblood Wyoming industry. They shouldn’t be left without, shouldering the burden of an industry’s demise, especially after they’ve upheld their end of a negotiated agreement.
What are these people to do? Many of these retirees are too young to go on Medicare, and they can’t afford costly private insurance. Should they go without? At their age, forgoing medical insurance could mean forgoing crucial screenings and checkups. It could mean not catching something life-threatening early enough.
They might find other work, but more than likely that would mean leaving Kemmerer, which has been their home for decades. It’s doubtful they’d be able to find a job with good benefits. It’s very unlikely they will find that opportunity in Kemmerer.
What is there to be done, though?
For one, our state Legislature could look into some kind of temporary fund that would help bridge the gap for the retirees who are still too young to get Medicare. The Wyoming Department of Health could offer screenings and health fairs. That may be the right thing to do for these Wyoming citizens.
But what really needs to be done is bigger than fixing broken promises in Kemmerer. Our delegation in Washington should address bankruptcy law and find a way to make the federal court system do more to protect the people in a situation where promises have been made. The law shouldn’t be only about protecting business owners. Bankruptcy law should provide a balance for both sides, especially where durable promises have been made.