As the Biden administration considers federal resources for coal workers and their communities, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) urge a set of comprehensive supports estimated to cost between $33 billion over 25 years to $83 billion over 15 years. The analysis, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape, underscores that a fair and equitable shift to a low-carbon economy requires intentional, robust, and sustained investments in coal workers, their families, and their communities.
Coal-fired electricity is down to 20 percent today from about half of the nation’s electricity generation a decade ago. With more closures on the horizon, a sustained and comprehensive set of supports is needed to ensure individuals who have powered America for generations can stay in their communities, prepare for new careers with family-sustaining wages, and can retire with dignity.
“For decades, the coal industry has simply locked its doors and forgotten the individuals and communities who rely on the coal industry and who exist in almost every state across the country,” said UWUA President James Slevin. “Approaching these closures with the right set of economic supports offers a better alternative to the chaos and devastation we’re seeing today.”
Recognizing coal and mining facilities often directly employ hundreds of individuals and many more indirectly across several counties, the economic and social infrastructure of a region undergoes lasting changes when facilities close.
“The economic upheaval resulting from the dramatic job losses in the coal industry over the last decade has uprooted families, deepened economic anxiety, and left community leaders scrambling to keep schools open and social services in place,” said report co-author Jeremy Richardson, a UCS senior energy analyst who comes from a family of coal miners. “But solutions are readily available with forward-looking and visionary action by policymakers.”
According to the UCS/UWUA analysis, approximately 90,086 coal miners and coal fired-power plant workers were employed in 462 counties across 47 states in 2019. Decreased demand has uprooted families, contributed to generational poverty, decimated tax revenue and gutted community services, including educational and emergency response funding. Many more coal workers and communities face the same fate without intentional policies to address these changes.
The analysis identifies specific policy supports lawmakers should enact to help dislocated coal workers find new career opportunities: five years of full wage replacement, health care coverage and employer retirement contributions, robust educational opportunities including paid tuition for academic, vocational, and other programs for up to five years for not only workers, but also for their children to prevent a fall into generational poverty, as well as access to a suite of social services.
“Giving these workers a fighting chance to find new career opportunities is not only the right thing to do, but the cost is only a small fraction of what must be invested in the energy system to shift to a low-carbon economy,” said Richardson.
UCS and UWUA urge the Biden administration and Congress to work together to develop and fund comprehensive programs and policies to support workers and communities that will be impacted by the shift away from coal. The proposed assistance package would cost less money if the services were made available over a longer time frame, in the range of 25 years, because more people would hit retirement age and not need support, according to the analysis.
Job losses in the coal mining sector were formerly centered in Central Appalachia, a region which saw tens of thousands of job losses in the early part of the decade. Today, western mines, including recent high-profile layoffs in Wyoming, are experiencing the impacts of this shift. States in the Midwest, including Michigan, in particular, will be impacted by coal plant closures over the next five years.
“We hope this kind of analysis offers a path forward as lawmakers seek well-designed policy at every level of government for coal-impacted individuals and communities,” said Lee Anderson, UWUA government affairs director and report co-author.