Republican Representative David McKinley of West Virginia and Democrat Peter Welch have proposed the Healthy Employee Loss Prevention (HELP) Act, which will assist eligible workers with retraining, job serving and relocation.
Workers will be eligible if their job loss is tied to a downturn in the coal industry related to a variety of factors, including cheaper alternative fuel sources, federal regulations, existence of state-to-state energy markets or other causes as determined by the commission that the bill would create to approve such eligibility.
Eligible workers will receive benefits for up to a year and can apply for a one-year extension.
Payments to workers participating in the training program will be calculated based on the amount of unemployment insurance a worker is eligible to receive.
US federal statistics revealed that more than 20,000 jobs had been lost since 2011 in the coal industry.
The latest came as Alpha Natural Resources announced it would idle three of its West Virginia mines, costing 261 jobs, with a further eight of the company’s mines warned they faced idling by November 26.
“Across West Virginia communities are being decimated by what’s happening to the coal industry,” McKinley said.
“Coal miners and other workers are being hurt by factors beyond their control, whether it’s regulations or market forces.
“It’s only fair we do something to help these struggling families.
“This legislation represents a bipartisan effort to move beyond our differences and offer help to the proud men and women of the coal industry who are out of work.”
Welch added that American coal workers were national heroes.
“With grit and determination, they fuelled America’s rise to an economic powerhouse,” Welch said.
“While there are strongly held views in Congress on climate change and energy policy, there should be no disagreement that America has an obligation to ensure displaced workers in the coal industry transition successfully to good jobs in other sectors.
“I am proud to work with Representative McKinley on this shared goal.”
As for his collaboration with Welch, McKinley said: "Maybe someone could say it's an odd couple but I think it's a good working relationship.”
Both men serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and have a history of working together on energy efficiency legislation.
Welch said members of Congress should help other districts when workers were displaced or there was a disaster, recalling his own reliance on other members when Vermont was hard hit by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
He said the “dead-end debate” over energy and climate change policy had been stymied by a failure to focus on commonalities – and helping dislocated workers was a good start.
It would help the case of those who wanted to address climate change if such people provided “not just moral but legislative opportunities” for coal field workers, he said.
“It's going to allow for there to be a broader discussion about policies that can address climate change without it being at the direct expense of these folks in the coalfields,”The Burlington Free Press quoted Welch as saying.
In a letter endorsing the HELP Act, the Blue-Green Alliance, a coalition of unions and environmental organisations, said: “It’s critical that we support workers and their communities when jobs are lost due to no fault of their own – which is what is happening in the coal industry. We applaud representatives Welch and McKinley for showing the leadership to take this issue on.”
Coal plays an enormous role in West Virginia’s economy, where it was discovered before it even became a state.
The National Mining Association said that while “well intentioned”, the initiative didn’t tackle the cause of the issue, just the symptoms.
"Far better would have been environmental regulations that don't contribute to the wholesale destruction of a regional industry and the high-wage employment it supports," association spokesman Luke Popovich told The Burlington Free Press.