Health insurance benefits to which 150 to 200 former mine workers and their wives believe they're entitled have been cut off.
Miners thought that under their contract with Kaiser Coal Co., they would have lifetime health benefits. The company is supposed to pay their insurance premiums, as part of the collective bargaining agreement, they say.But when Kaiser's mine at Sunnyside, Carbon County, ceased producing coal and filed for bankruptcy last April, the company apparently stopped paying insurance premiums for its former employees.
Suddenly, bills were returned to the supposed beneficiaries - for hospitalization, doctor's visits and medication. This caused distress among miners and their families.
The office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is investigating the matter.
"The senator was contacted yesterday," Hatch spokesman Dave Porter said Friday afternoon. "We are in the process right now of making an inquiry with the Labor Department."
Hatch is a member of the Senate's Labor and Human Resources Committee, which oversees labor issues. He is concerned about the situation, Porter said.
"I feel terrible about it," said Cecil Henningson, East Carbon City. He worked in the Sunnyside mine for 11 years, mostly as a roof bolter.
"I have a family. I have kids. And insurance is very important. One of my kids getting hurt without me having insurance - that could set me back for life."
Some retired people depend on medication to live, he said, and the drugs were supposed to be paid for by the benefit program. But now they aren't and bills are mounting up.
"Some of them have medical bills that are damn near $20,000," he said. That's just since April.
Henningson worried that some people might choose not to have cancer treatments if their families have to bear the entire expense.
"There's people here getting medical bills sent back to them since April, when the mine was operating," he said. "It's affecting me financially. It's just tearing this town apart."
Clifford Larry Boren of Wellington, Carbon County, is 65 years old. For 41 years he worked for Kaiser, mostly running a loading machine outside the mine. He retired about four years ago.
"They don't take care of the medical expenses or nothin', and that's guaranteed you in your contract," he said. "I got a pile of bills."
He said he'll have to pay them - $1,500 total, so far - if the company or the bankruptcy court doesn't.
"The hospital's been dunnin' me," Boren said. "I guess they're going to put a collector or something on me in another month."
As the United Mine Workers' Union suggested, he sent copies of the bills to the bankruptcy court. "I haven't got nothin' yet paid," Boren said. "I got bills that's due for four month . . . It don't make you feel too happy."
Louis Pestotnik, Price, retired after 48 years as a heavy machinery operator and a union official. He worked for U.S. Steel at Hiawatha and the Kaiser Mine mine, then served as secretary-treasurer for the UMW's District 22 from 1977 to 1982.
Around June, Pestotnik received a bill from the hospital in Price, which he thought would be paid by the insurance company.
He went to the hospital to ask what was going on. "They told me they received all their billings back from (the insurance company) and they were starting to bill the patients," he said.
"I got angry. I thought these things should be taken care of by your union leadership - at least informing the rank and file what was going on."
The union should make sure that the benefits are provided if the company doesn't, he said.
"That's what they promised their membership," Pestotnik said. "They promised these benefits to their retirees for life, and the spouses."