A letter to locked out Blackjewel LLC coal workers at the company’s shuttered Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr operations foreshadows a possible reopening of the mines and leaves almost 600 employees with more questions than answers.
Blackjewel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection July 1 and abruptly closed its 32 operations in Wyoming and across Appalachia and locked out about 1,700 workers. Since then, employees have had their final paychecks bounce, haven’t been paid for other time worked, haven’t had 401(k) and health insurance account contributions paid and, as of the end of August, have had their health insurance canceled.
Now the company wants to know if the Wyoming mines were to reopen, how many of its 580 Campbell County workers would return if recalled.
Hundreds of those employees already have applied for and have been collecting unemployment from the state and hundreds more have found other jobs since, as the letter states, “the company was forced to temporarily furlough several employees.”
While noncommittal, the letter asks workers if they’d come back. If they don’t respond by Sept. 19, then Blackjewel will consider that a resignation.
“The company is currently considering restarting production efforts at the facilities and, as a result, may be in the position to recall furloughed workers,” the letter says. “The company does not know specifically when it would restart production, but if it is in the position to do so, it could restart operations during the next several days or during the coming weeks.”
Employees are given the contact information of a company human resources person and told that if they “are not available or willing to return to work, we certainly would understand and wish you all the best in your future endeavors.”
While the prospect of returning to work is appealing to some, the thought of actively working for Blackjewel again would be difficult, said one longtime mine worker who asked not to be identified. While he said he may return if recalled, he knows of many others who wouldn’t even if they haven’t yet found other jobs.
“The dislike for and distrust of Blackjewel at this point is at such a high, I don’t know if they’d have many good people willing to go back,” he said.
He also said the wording of the letter is so vague that it instills little confidence a recall actually could happen.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.
Although Contura Energy Inc. was approved Aug. 6 by a federal U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge to buy the Wyoming mines, the sale is contingent on Contura reaching an agreement with the government over unpaid royalties.
In the 36 days since, the sale seems to have hit a stalemate and Blackjewel’s largest debt holder even called the deal “dead” in a court filing.
While Blackjewel’s letter could mean the company is working to reopen the mines on its own, it’s more likely it may have identified other potential buyers, said Robert Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming College of Business.
“There are a lot of questions here, but one is why now?” he said. “One answer could be is they’re still in negotiations with Contura. Another is they’re in negotiation with another party and the Contura sale really is ‘dead,’ which a lot of people suspect now.”
If there is another potential buyer for the mines, knowing what kind of skilled workforce is still attached to Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr is a critical asset, Godby said.
Campbell County Commission Chairman Rusty Bell said he would welcome another buyer for the mines other than Contura or Blackjewel reopening them itself.
“I hope they’re putting the feeler out there for a potential buyer,” he said.
Bell said the county has had some contact with other coal mining companies asking questions, but he doesn’t have direct knowledge of any negotiations.
What he does know is that since the Aug. 6 sale, “it has been very, very quiet about is there a deal, isn’t there a deal with Contura? I know there can’t be any deal without the federal government being OK with it.”
It’s unlikely Blackjewel would be looking to reopen the mines and operate them itself unless it somehow secured financing, something the cash-strapped company has had extreme difficulty doing since filing for bankruptcy July 1, Godby said.
Other than putting out feelers for another potential buyer, the Blackjewel letter also could be hedging the company’s bets against a wrongful termination lawsuit or clearing the way for a possible change to Chapter 7 liquidation.
Blackjewel already faces a lawsuit from workers at its Appalachia mines saying their sudden lockout was illegal because they didn’t get a lawfully mandated 60-day notice, Godby said. The letter makes it clear the company considers the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr workers as “temporarily furloughed” and says that failure to respond will mean an employee has “abandoned your position with the company, or have resigned.”
“That they are officially claiming that these people are furloughed may have implications for their lawsuit and any legal things they have with the mass layoffs,” he said. “If you don’t respond, you have technically resigned your position, according to the company.”
Whatever the motivation, the company should know what kind of workforce it has left, he said.
“If they are trying to tell somebody these are viable mines, you need to show them there’s a viable workforce there,” Godby said. “We know a lot of workers have already moved on. This is kind of a carrot on a stick. The carrot is we may reopen the mines. The stick is, if you don’t respond, we consider it a resignation.”
Something that also should give employees pause is that while the letter says there is potential for the mines to reopen, it doesn’t give any specifics about what it means to remain a Blackjewel employee. By confirming a response to a recall, employees aren’t promised their health care would start up again or that their retirement contributions would be made whole, Godby said.
“Clearly, the employees are the collateral damage here, but they’re also a critical asset,” he said. “The suggestion is somebody might think there’s a possibility of opening those mines, and the necessary ingredient for that is a workforce.”
The bottom line
While he wants to look at the letter as a positive message and that a recall of workers may happen, Bell said it’s difficult to see the glass as half-full.
If he were a Blackjewel coal worker and received the letter, he said he would think “there isn’t anything in there. All it says is, ‘Hey, are you still willing to work for Blackjewel?’
“My thinking is yes, there are some, but I just can’t imagine there being a heck of a lot of confidence in that letter. I’m not feeling really, really confident in Blackjewel reopening the mines.”
Gillette College may be a half-century old, but the institution still has a lot of maturation ahead of it.
Gillette College Vice President Janell Oberlander and Walter Tribley, president of the Northern Wyoming Community College District, said they are optimistic about the future as they continue to focus on the present.
The pair spoke at the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon Tuesday, saying the school wants to secure state funding to help pay for a study on building a new academic facility on campus.
In June, the college submitted a capital construction request to the Wyoming Community College Commission to build a two-story, 30,000-square-foot facility projected to cost about $13.8 million. The state would cover half while the rest would come from local sources.
If money for the study is approved and the college convinces the Legislature to free up more money for another phase of the project, work could begin.
Times are changing
Another topic that was discussed was the importance of obtaining a higher education degree or certificate.
The state is blessed to provide opportunities for residents without a higher education, especially in the mineral extraction industries, “but times are changing,” Tribley said.
The percentage of high school graduates who go directly from high school to college in the Campbell County School District was 33% for both Campbell County and Thunder Basin high schools, 40% for Westwood High School and 40% for Wright Junior-Senior High School. Across the state, it’s 45%.
The numbers rank well below the national average of 63%.
“If you look at the future and direction of the economy, it will require some higher-level education,” he said.
Tribley also discussed the importance of the applied baccalaureate program, which he said allows students to advance their degrees without leaving the area. The college district wants to do its best without having to compete with the University of Wyoming.
A spike in enrollment
Gillette College’s first-day enrollment in August was 1,276. This marks a 272-student increase compared to 2018, when it was 1,004.
“I haven’t figured out the why behind that yet,” Oberlander said.
It speaks highly of the work the faculty is doing and strong relationship the school has with its industry partners, she said.
“We’re excited to show these numbers, but we also know these numbers change,” she said.
Campbell County school officials were given the go-ahead Tuesday night to come up with a policy to allow armed educators within their doors for safety.
The decision by school district trustees to move forward with a policy for concealed carry staff, along with other safety procedures, followed a long and divisive comment period in which educators, parents, law enforcement and veterans spoke out.
Not everyone agreed about arming school staff in the city limits, but they did agree that safety was an issue and advocated for adding more school resource officers. They also agreed the need for continued discussion is crucial.
Looking at back up
Karen Jenson said that she and others understood that the motivation to arm educators is to protect students from harm. But the district could come up with solutions similar to those it addresses for mental illness and suicide prevention that would diminish gun violence, she said.
“Our opposition, all of us here tonight, is not to guns. We are not anti-gun,” she said. “Our opposition is to enacting a dangerous policy based on a protective and well-intentioned instinct that is not backed up by data.”
Teachers do not have the time to train like police do and they shouldn’t. That is not their job, she said. Their job is to teach students.
“Whenever you build a weapon you have to deploy, there is no rush. So what is the downside to tabling this vote?” she said.
Resident Justine Schuff was disappointed in the board’s decision.
“All the research points toward arming teachers being a bad idea. I feel like this has been presented over and over again, and I worry that’s not being taken seriously,” she said.
“What we’re asking teachers to do is become the good guy with the gun,” former teacher Bailey Gregorich said. “What is the job of the teacher?”
The district has not done enough evidence-based research to justify creating a policy. Those who do the research will see it’s a gamble and an experiment they don’t want to involve their children in, Schuff said.
Another concern is the unknown certainty of the state and local economies.
There’s a looming $300 million shortfall for Wyoming’s education funding, but “how will that affect us?,” asked retired Sage Valley Junior High teacher Christy Gerrits.
“I know we’re funded by the basket of goods, but if the Legislature decides to legally change any of those allowances, we can be impacted,” she said. “In addition, 600 hardworking families have been laid off and many are likely to leave to find employment. Many, if not most, of those families have children.
“Campbell County School District could lose $16,000 a child.”
The district does not know what it is going to cost to implement an armed educator policy, according to a fact sheet it released. For example, when it asked what a potential policy would cost, it stated it does not know until policy is written, Gerrits said.
“So with unknown resources, you’re voting whether to spend more on a program for which you don’t even know an estimated cost — hardly the action of a research-based and data-driven district,” she said.
An urgency to do something
Current and former members of law enforcement and the military spoke in favor of creating a policy to arm educators.
If teachers are armed, it can eliminate the threat of another Columbine, retired U.S. Army Sgt. Scott Adams said.
“If we implement this, we could eliminate most of the threats,” he said.
Campbell County School District resource officer Jerry Fitzner also expressed support for writing a policy.
“We’re speaking about lives, not money and money should not be a concern,” he said. “I don’t see an issue with drafting policy seeing what we can do to promote this inside our community. I think that If we do nothing, we don’t have anything to prevent this right now.
“I pray every day that this doesn’t happen, but I also think we’ve been given these tools to utilize.”
There have been enough discussions on the issue, Alex Bredthauer said.
“This is not about bravado, it’s about the safety of kids,” he said.
With schools like Rozet Elementary and Little Power River several miles away from law enforcement, it would take too long for them to react to a potential shooting, Bredthauer said.
Board members agreed and will take that into consideration as it creates the policy.
Gillette Cpl. Jay Johnson suggested that the board move away from an emotional conversation about an armed educator policy and come up with something to look at “then make a decision on that.”
The administration will be doing just that.
The administration with consultation from the board will work on a policy that is projected to take at least two months. It will then go to first reading, then two public hearings, then a final hearing.
That will give people more time to weigh in on the topic.