The Workers' Compensation Fund Performance Council voted Friday to drop 25 big coal companies from lawsuits seeking to collect nearly $200 million in unpaid premiums and interest.
The council's unanimous vote was a recommendation to Employment Programs Commissioner William Vieweg. During an afternoon press conference in the governor's office, Vieweg praised the council's resolution as well-written.
Vieweg released a copy of the resolution just after Gov. Cecil Underwood signed a new Workers' Compensation Fund bill that makes it easier for injured workers to qualify for "permanent total disability benefits."
Jim Bowen, president of the West Virginia State Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, negotiated language in the bill for the past three months.
The negotiations between Bowen and Raney also included the Performance Council's action to stop the legal action against big coal companies, including A.T. Massey Coal Co., Bluestone Coal Corp., National Mines Co., Island Creek Coal Co. and USX Corp.
Bowen said 35 lawsuits will be pursued against small contractors hired by big coal companies to mine coal for them.
During the press conference, House Speaker Robert Kiss, D-Raleigh, and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, praised Bowen and Raney for their work in negotiating the compromise.
Kiss said Raney and Bowen worked "to structure a compromise that will benefit the whole state."
Steve White, executive director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, criticized the deal.
"These suits should go to trial," White said on Friday. "No one has answered the question as to how anyone let these contractors get hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
"I can't believe it occurred without the assistance of the major corporations who were benefiting from it," White said. "Now, unpaid premiums will have to be picked up by existing businesses and workers."
The ACT Foundation is a coalition of trade unions representing building and construction workers throughout West Virginia.
Business leaders have also privately criticized the compromise negotiated by Bowen and Raney. Critics include members of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and West Virginia Manufacturers Association.
The compromise, they say, offers no benefits to employers who regularly pay their Workers' Compensation premiums. The compromise does include a six-month amnesty period for delinquent employers, allowing them to avoid interest and penalty payments.
The legislation Underwood signed also restored PTD benefits to surviving spouses of injured workers for two years after their deaths.