June 4, 2018 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At Reuters, Brian Snyder reports that the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides medical coverage and assistance to more than 15,000 people, is at risk of insolvency due to rising debt and an upcoming tax cut that would slash coal company contributions to the fund. The risk comes as cases of black lung disease reach their highest numbers in decades.

The coal industry is lobbying members of Congress to ensure the tax cut goes through, saying that payments to the fund are too high and that miners have abused the system, though medical experts dispute the latter argument. In fact, Snyder reports that a bipartisan effort to extend the fund-supporting coal tax failed earlier this year after Republican leadership refused to take it up. Snyder writes:

Brandon Crum, a radiologist at the United Medical Group in Pikeville, Kentucky, said he has personally diagnosed more than 150 cases of advanced black lung disease since 2016, many in younger miners.

Crum, whose own family worked the mines for a century, said many of these people face a lifetime unable to work, inundated with medical bills.

“Any kind of asset or financial stability you would take away from these miners and their families would be devastating,” he said.

To qualify for benefits, a miner must apply to the Department of Labor, which screens the applications based on medical and employment documentation and then tries to find a responsible coal company to pay the costs.

Jim Werth, the black lung clinic director at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Virginia, said his clinic has three people on staff helping patients file for benefits. He rejected the idea that the fund was covering undeserving applicants, saying the process already makes it hard to qualify, with coal companies often hiring doctors to dispute medical test results.

William McCool, 64, said it took him years to win benefits.

“I worked 40 years in the mines, and the benefits don’t come automatic,” said McCool, who wore a grey baseball cap emblazoned with a crossing pick-axe and shovel during an interview at the Mountain Health Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he receives oxygen and physical therapy.

Read the full story at Reuters.

In other news:

Politico: Lorraine Woellert reports that President Trump recently signed a series of executive orders making it easier to fire civil servants, directing federal agencies to renegotiate labor contracts, and capping the amount of time workers can take off to participate in union-related business. The orders also direct federal agencies to charge rent to workers who use federal office space for union activities and to stop covering travel for non-agency business. Advocates warn that that the rollback could make it harder for Congress to conduct its oversight responsibilities, as workers may be less willing to speak up about wrongdoing. Woellert quoted J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who said: “This is more than union busting — it’s democracy busting. This administration seems hellbent on replacing a civil service that works for all taxpayers with a political service that serves at its whim.”

The Nation: Michael Sainato reports that this week, activists from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as well as fellow labor groups will protest outside of Wendy’s headquarters in Ohio during the fast food company’s annual shareholder meeting, calling on the company to join the coalition’s Fair Food Program. The program, which grew out of the exploitative and abusive conditions on Florida tomato farms, requires retailers to buy from growers that follow a code of conduct designed to protect workers’ rights and wages, prevent violence against workers, and allow workers to speak up without fear of retaliation. To date, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and the corporate owner of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut have all joined the Fair Food Program, but not Wendy’s. In fact, Sainato reports that Wendy’s has stopped buying its tomatoes from growers in Florida, where the Fair Food Program has been effective in improving conditions and raising wages for workers. Sainato quoted Patricia Cipolliti, co-coordinator of the Alliance for Fair Food: “We will be going into the meeting and addressing Wendy’s leadership directly about the fact that they haven’t signed on to the Fair Food Program. We are asking them to look us in the eye and tell us why it is they’re taking so long to join the Fair Food Program.”

Gizmodo: Melanie Ehrenkranz reports that thousands of activists delivered an open letter to Amazon last week urging the company’s shareholders to free contractors from forced arbitration, which eliminates their rights to be heard in court. While Amazon had previously told Gizmodo it does not require its employees submit to arbitration, independent contractors aren’t classified as official Amazon employees. And in fact, an Amazon spokesperson later confirmed that some contractors do have forced arbitration clauses in their contracts. The open letter reads: “Amazon is currently being sued by workers with whom you contract. Amazon has asked the court to force those workers into private ‘courts’ of their choosing and to prevent the workers from banding together to defend their rights. …As a tech company that prides itself on a progressive work environment, removing forced arbitration provisions for all claims related to the workplace and employees should be no brainer.”

Teen Vogue: Kim Kelly reports on the history of U.S. child labor laws in the wake of news that the Department of Labor is readying a proposal to loosen safety rules intended to protect teen workers, including rules prohibiting teens from extended training in dangerous jobs that often require the use of dangerous machinery. Kelly puts current child labor protections in context, writing about the days when it was perfectly legal for children to work in factories, mines, mills and sweatshops (she notes that even to this day, agriculture is often exempt from child labor protections). Kelly writes: “The unspoken impact of the kind of regulation-slashing scheme the Trump administration reportedly championed in its proposal is that, of course, poor and working-class kids will suffer the most because they’re the ones who need to seek work and take available jobs, even if they involve heavy machinery, construction, or manufacturing.”

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