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FAIRMONT, W.V. ― Joe Brown worked for more than 30 years as a roof bolter at the Federal #2 Mine in Marion County. Installing roof supports is one of the most hazardous jobs in coal mining, essential to the safety of all the other miners. Even though Brown’s lanky 6-foot-3 frame made bolting easier for him than others, he’s had four surgeries ― two on his back, two on his knees ― as a result of his decades at the mine.
But the union job helped Brown and his wife, Jo-Ann, buy a modest ranch house with a yard big enough for a ride-on mower, and put their three now-grown daughters through school. A small sign hangs on a tree beside Brown’s driveway, just across the street from a church: “Welcome to Brownsville, population 5. Mayor: Joe Brown.”
The mining work also assured him security in old age through retiree health coverage and a defined-benefit pension ― crucial perks that made the dangerous work and risk of black lung disease worth undertaking for Brown, who was one of just a few African Americans in his mine. When his injuries forced him into early retirement and onto disability in 2002, the benefits became even more vital.
“It was in writing that the pension would be secure,” Brown, now 78, said on a recent afternoon, taking a break from remodeling his bathroom. “A pension ’til I pass away ― that was the deal.”
But the pension plan through the United Mine Workers of America that Brown and 86,000 other retirees rely on is on track to be insolvent in about three years, which could result in deep cuts to once-guaranteed monthly payments. A growing number of plans are in similarly bad shape. If nothing is done, the coming rash of insolvencies could torpedo part of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, or PBGC, the government-run corporation that insures defined-benefit pensions.
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