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Locked out Blackjewel workers look for other jobs while in limbo

Patrick Johnson and his father Buck were out on a lake fishing when they got the news that their employer, Blackjewel LLC, had filed for bankruptcy. Hours later, as they were sitting and talking, they got a call from a coworker saying the company’s employees had been sent home from the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines.

Patrick had been working at Eagle Butte mine for a month, but Buck had spent 18 years at Belle Ayr.

“It definitely put a damper on the camping trip for a little bit,” Patrick said. “But life goes on. You just got to move past it, figure out what you’re going to do from there.”

Patrick Johnson was just one of hundreds trying to move on and find new jobs at a job fair Wednesday at the Gillette College Technical Education Center.

Kay Roth of Wyoming Workforce Services estimated that more than 325 people had come through the job fair in the first few hours. There were 40 companies at the event that was put together in a week.

Companies came from across the region, including South Dakota, Colorado, Montana and Utah.

Tina Crider-Honeycutt, risk management specialist for Campbell County’s Human Resources Department, said she was encouraged to see that the Blackjewel employees are keeping their spirits up.

“We’ve had a lot of positive people,” she said. “You can tell they’re Gillette strong, they’re not going to let this get them down.”

The lockout affects 1,700 Blackjewel employees, including about 580 from the Wyoming mines. The company also has coal mines in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

Blackjewel abruptly shut down operations July 1 after a $20 million emergency financing package was pulled by the bank. The money was intended to allow the mines to continue as usual during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. After a turbulent week that included more court hearings, more than 1,000 bounced paychecks and ouster of the former president and CEO Jeff Hoops, a new reorganization team is working to secure financing and reopen the mines.

Chad Bonsness worked for 20 years at Eagle Butte mine. Although he was finding some good prospects at the job fair Wednesday, he’s still “holding out to see what happens in the next week or two.”

“I think we’ll all be able to go back to work,” he said, adding that he advises job seekers to think their decisions through.

“Don’t jump in and take the first (job), you know,” he said. “You’ve got to look through it, think it through before you jump off the diving board.”

He noted that there are “hundreds of jobs” outside of Gillette, but “do you want to relocate though? That’s the big thing.”

Alec Laub and Johnson had interviews Wednesday afternoon. They both said they were frustrated by the lack of communication between Blackjewel and its employees.

“Some days you’re waiting to hear news and you’re not getting much,” said Laub, who worked at Belle Ayr. “The hardest part is just not knowing ... what exactly is going on.”

All they know about the situation is what they’ve seen online, Johnson said.

“It could be we get a call Monday and they say, ‘The doors are open, come back to work,’” he said. “Or it could be two months from now.”

Johnson said that since he’d only spent a month at Blackjewel, he’ll probably part ways with the company. He wants to stay in Gillette and the coal industry, though, and has been looking at Cloud Peak and Peabody Energy as potential landing spots. Both companies have large Powder River Basin mines and were represented at the job fair.

Laub and Johnson said that while the past several days have been stressful, the community support has made life a little bit easier.

“Having all these people come together helping us out is really making it a lot easier on us,” Johnson said. “It’s just been amazing.”

Search continues for Moorcroft man who went missing in Nebraska

Officials from more than a dozen agencies in both Wyoming and Nebraska are still searching for Chance Englebert, the 25-year-old Moorcroft man who went missing Saturday night.

Authorities expanded their search area Wednesday in their attempt to locate Chance and reunite him with his family.

His wife Baylee said Thursday morning that there haven’t been many updates on Chance’s whereabouts.

On Wednesday morning, police set up their command station at the Kiwanis Lodge by the YMCA Trails West Camp. Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said Thursday’s search will expand in a more westward direction. Additionally, watercraft is being used along the North Platte River to see if there are any sightings of Englebert along the riverbank in areas that are tougher to access by foot.

Goshen County Search and Rescue and their K-9 were seen working the Monument Pathway along the north side of the river Wednesday morning as well.

Gering Police Captain Jason Rogers said Englebert was visiting family in Gering on Saturday. According to a timeline of events, Englebert departed the home on O Street and began walking north on 10th Street.

Rogers said the last confirmed sighting of Chance was at 7:49 p.m. Saturday when a woman saw him walking past a Domino’s Pizza restaurant in Gering heading toward Scottsbluff.

He’s also seen at 7:51 p.m. Saturday in video surveillance that captured him walking past the intersection of Martha Drive in Gering.

He was last seen wearing a short-sleeved Wrangler button-up shirt, blue Wrangler jeans and a black-and-white hat. He stands 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 180 pounds. He has brown hair, blue eyes and a scar on his hip.

Chance and Baylee, along with their newborn baby, were visiting family in Gering over the weekend.

Baylee said she also got word that someone had seen her husband between 9 and 10 p.m. Saturday near the small town of Terrytown standing under a tree during a storm.

Chance was one of the 580 Blackjewel LLC employees who were told to leave and not report for work after the company’s bankruptcy was denied July 1. Baylee said she doesn’t think that has anything to do with his disappearance.

He had already secured another job at Blakeman Propane in Moorcroft and was supposed to start work Monday.

Rogers is asking the public for any information on Englebert’s whereabouts, and people can call 308-436-5088 if they have any new information.

News Record Photo/Rhianna Gelhart 

Janet Jordan's backyard garden has statues of seagulls, her favorite bird, and flowers from her ranch and new flowers she has planted since living at her new house.

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FROM WNE: Blackjewel’s unpaid bills wrecked businesses, owners say
Local owners recount ordeal that led them to bankruptcy and losing their cleaning company

GILLETTE — A year to the day before Blackjewel LLC shocked Wyoming by shutting down the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines, the Golay family gave up on the company.

The Golays had cleaned mine buildings for decades and for multiple owners. But by July 1, 2018, Blackjewel had driven them out of business, they told WyoFile. Months of the company stiffing their family cleaning business had left them unable to pay their home mortgage or other bills. They’d foregone those personal obligations to pay their four employees, the Golays said, until they ultimately had to lay them off.

In a July 25, 2018, letter to now-ousted Blackjewel CEO Jeffrey Hoops, Tana Golay listed the invoices the company had left unpaid in a desperate attempt to collect. The outstanding invoices added up to $37,500, a grain of sand in the soaring pile of hundreds of millions of dollars in debt Blackjewel accumulated before the company came crashing down last week.

But for the Golays, it was everything.

“Mr. Hoops, what took us 27 years to build as a ‘MOM & POP’ business, you have torn down in less than 7 months,” Tana Golay wrote. “Congratulations!”

The Golays are not alone. Blackjewel racked up debt all over Gillette. The company owes $156 million to vendors it traded with in “the normal course of business,” according to bankruptcy filings. It’s unclear how much of that money is owed to local vendors in Wyoming. But in interviews this week, local business owners said the company was always slow to pay and often would only settle debts when threatened with loss of service.

The story of the Golays and other Gillette businesses raises increasing questions about Hoops’ financial management of the company and shows the widespread wreckage left behind when two large coal mines fall into the hands of a company that didn’t pay its debts.

In the fall of 2018, Blackjewel finally paid the Golays what they owed, but it was too late to save their business. The court took Blackjewel’s late payment as part of Carefree Cleaning’s bankruptcy proceedings. The Golays now work for the local school district. Their financial status is diminished and their mortgage is harder to cover. They miss being business owners instead of government employees, they said. Their bankruptcy filings shows a sharp drop in income for the couple.

“We lived comfortably,” Tana Golay said. “Now we struggle.”

Last week, Blackjewel suddenly abandoned the two mines, sending home nearly 600 workers. Two days later Hoops was forced out as CEO by lenders in proceedings a bankruptcy judge called “unprecedented.”

Among Blackjewel’s unpaid bills is a nearly $6 million debt to Wyoming Machinery Co., an industrial equipment dealer out of Casper. The large company has lawyers filing motions in West Virginia bankruptcy court to secure the money it’s owed and reclaim equipment left at the mines. Smaller business operators interviewed by WyoFile this week don’t have those resources. If the mines don’t reopen, as they hope, they’ll have to walk away and try to rebuild.

Blackjewel acquired the mines in December 2017. From that point forward the operation was negligent in paying its bills, four Gillette-based contractors or business owners told WyoFile this week. Some of those companies have uncollected accounts with Blackjewel large enough to wreck their balance sheets. Two of them have laid off or plan to lay off employees since Blackjewel’s July 1 collapse.

All of them blamed Hoops for not paying Blackjewel’s bills, not the local management team that moved with the mines through a series of owners. Local vendors had built relationships with the mines’ staffs under different ownership for years and say those relationships were tested after the man from Appalachia took over the company and it became much harder to collect.

“I feel sorry for the management and accounts receivable [department],” said Doug Cox, owner of Western Services, a courier service that transferred machine parts to the mines, often on an emergency basis.

“They’re the ones whose reputations suffer because Jeff Hoops didn’t pay his bills,” Cox said. “That’s really hard on really good people that live in this town.”

WyoFile received no response to a request for comment from a lawyer and was unable to contact Hoops himself.

The bankruptcy filing that caught state and county officials flat-footed was less shocking for those who say Hoops stiffed them for over a year and a half.

“We saw it coming,” said Tana Golay. “I don’t know why nobody else did.”

Contractors who provide machinery, delivery, cleaning and maintenance services to Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr describe a cycle with Blackjewel under Hoops. They would go out to the mines and do the work, either for the occasional job or on a contract like the Golays. They’d bill Blackjewel and the bills would go unpaid and pile up.

“You never got paid unless you called and threatened to cut off service,” Cox said.

Managers at another small Gillette company, Elite Industrial, would threaten to cut off their work repairing machines and doing electrical contracting. “All of a sudden there’d be a check here by 5 o’clock,” said Sven Lunberg, a manager there. Elite Industrial has 17 employees, Lunberg said.

Paid for several outstanding invoices, the contractors would go back to work. Then the cycle would repeat itself. “Then [the debt] would get big again and I’d threaten to cut off services and get paid again,” Cox said.

But some of those companies had significant unpaid bills when Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy last week. Western Services is owed $600,000 and had to lay off seven of 22 employees, Cox said. Elite Industrial is owed $20,000 and will likely have to lay someone off, Lunberg said. While news accounts and state officials have focused on the 580 Blackjewel employees, the real number of jobs lost to the bankruptcy is likely already higher than that and likely to continue growing, local businessmen say.

The business owners interviewed by WyoFile have lost what little faith remained in Hoops. Yet some contractors expressed hope they could go back to work with Blackjewel now that the CEO has been ousted, as a new management team pursues financing to reopen the mines.

“I think you’ll see [debts] worked out without Hoops in charge,” Cox said.

Forgiveness for the out-of-state businessman who snapped up the two struggling coal mines is harder to come by in Gillette, where mine workers have bemoaned the loss of retirement savings and contractors blame Hoops for unpaid bills.

“To leave employees high and dry like that, it’s almost malicious,” said Lunberg.

Vern Golay bought Carefree Cleaning from his father, he said. They’ve cleaned at other mines for Peabody Energy and Kiewitt and for 15 years cleaned the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mine buildings under Alpha Natural Resources, Contura Energy and finally Blackjewel. Around 2010, the couple focused their business solely on the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr. Vern and Tana and their son cleaned office buildings and employees’ changing rooms and break rooms, laboratories where coal was tested and the control rooms that supervised the loading. They cleaned around electrical equipment and industrial mining machinery.

Business was good and getting paid wasn’t a question until Hoops’ Blackjewel took over, they said.

“For 14 years,” Vern said, “we’d put a bill on their desk and five days later we’d get paid.”

When Alpha Natural Resources declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Carefree Cleaning had to wait a year on two bills, but when the payment came in, it came with “a little interest,” Vern said.

The Golays kept cleaning the mines as Alpha Natural Resources created a new company, Contura Energy, and spun the mines off to them. They kept cleaning as Contura sold the mines to Blackjewel in 2017. In a testament to the state of the coal industry, two of the nations’ most productive mines sold at a loss, but in statements Contura said getting out from under the reclamation and other obligations put them ahead in the long run.

Blackjewel took over mine operations. The Golays kept cleaning, and billing. “Then a month comes along,” with no check, Vern said. “Then two months comes along.”

They could float for a while, he said, but started asking local management where their checks were. Blackjewel paid Carefree Cleaning for several months of accumulated bills sometime in March or April of 2018, Vern said. By then they’d already laid off their four employees. The couple and their son were doing the cleaning at the two mines by themselves. “We’re still trying,” Vern said.

When the money came in, they hired employees back.

They kept cleaning the mine buildings. But again, Blackjewel didn’t pay. “We let everybody go again at the end of May,” Vern said. “We’re broke again.” The Golays had been driving up their debt to pay their employees, Vern said. They were neglecting mortgage payments and making tough decisions each month about their other bills.

“We were keeping our lights and our gas on,” and that was it, Tana said.

Tana Golay was cleaning the buildings at Eagle Butte by herself, a job previously done by four people, Vern said. Her body ached. “Her rotator cuff was wearing out on her,” Vern said.

By the end of June, Blackjewel was three months behind on paying the couple. A local employee they’d worked with for years called a meeting with them, and, unable to get the money out of the eastern Blackjewel management, told the couple to “walk away,” according to Vern.

The Golays were done. On July 1 they packed their stuff and walked away. “A year ago exactly,” from when Blackjewel shuttered its doors, Vern said.

The company didn’t settle up until the following fall, Vern said. By then, the Golays were in bankruptcy proceedings. Records at the Wyoming Bankruptcy Court show the Golays filed for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy on Oct. 2. The couple owed significant taxes.

“I’m broke and I’m 63,” Vern said on Tuesday, speaking to WyoFile in the living room of his house in Gillette. He’s now a custodian for Campbell County School District #1, where his wife also works. If he works until he’s 70, he should be able to retire, Vern said.