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Community steps up for locked out Blackjewel workers

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July 1, 2019, will be remembered for a couple of reasons in Campbell County.

One is obvious: It was the day Blackjewel LLC, owner and operator of the Eagle Butte and Bell Ayr mines and dozens of other mines across the country, shut down and locked out 1,700 employees, including about 600 at the Wyoming mines.

It will be remembered as one of the most devastating and shocking days for Gillette’s coal community since another devastating and shocking 24 hours in 2016 when nearly 500 Powder River Basin miners were laid off en masse.

Even for a region and city that is familiar with the boom and bust cycle that comes with energy production, July 1 will be remembered as a blindsided slap in the face by many.

The other way it will be remembered is for how the community responded, maybe because Gillette has been here before and has seen the effect distressed coal companies can have on a community that depend on them.

Three years ago, it didn’t take long after the layoffs for posters to be made and put up in shop windows, staked into front lawns and all across town. Slowly and not all at once, food drives were organized, donations were made and jobs were posted here and there, for local gigs and not so local ones.

This time the response has been different, and still is as miners remain in limbo with hope their jobs could be open to them again any minute.

This time around, people got those same signs out and put them up immediately.

Within hours, restaurants up and down Gillette Avenue had thousands of dollars worth of donations to spend on miners who had been told to leave their jobs.

Nearly 100 people showed up to the unemployment office in Gillette the afternoon of July 1, hundreds of more filled out applications all week and through it all one thing was abundantly clear: When it comes to responding to mass coal layoffs, Gillette has become better with practice.

A quick response

Trey McConnell is the general manager for The Railyard restaurant on Gillette Avenue.

When McConnell first heard the news of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy filing that Monday morning, then its abrupt shutdown just hours later, one thought ran through his mind.

“We wanted to take care of our coal miners,” he said.

About a half hour after he heard the news, McConnell had posted on the Railyard’s Facebook that any coal miner suddenly out of work could come in and get half-priced burgers.

Word spread and residents started calling McConnell.

“People were calling and saying they’d put down $100 donations, then five or six more people would call,” he said. “They’d start giving us credit card numbers over the phone. It took on a life of its own.”

Half-price burgers became free burgers and a drink. Later in the afternoon, free burgers turned into the whole menu and a tab of $4,000 was suddenly open for Blackjewel employees.

The next day, about 300 Blackjewel employees came in the restaurant for lunch and dinner. The place was packed for hours and for a moment, they all got to feel a sense of relief knowing that their community had their backs. It also was important to have a place to gather and talk with others about being suddenly locked out of their jobs and what to do next.

“We’re local people,” McConnell said. “We wanted to help them out. We wanted to give them a day where people could relax a little and let go of their stress.”

McConnell said it was a pretty inspiring afternoon. As he walked around the restaurant, he said he heard people talking about their plans, their goals, what they would do next and said he really felt the bond between the employees.

Being in the restaurant business, McConnell knows a thing or two about downturns and bad times. In those times, restaurant owners and managers rely on their regulars to keep them going. He made the analogy that the Blackjewel workers just needed some regulars to keep their spirits high.

“They were out of work and maybe felt like they didn’t have anyone to lean on,” he said. “We opened it up to them and extended that olive branch out to let them know how much we appreciate them and care about them.”

McConnell said he was happy to even offer just a sliver of a distraction for the employees, even if it was only for a short time over burgers and beer.

“We’re just trying to make the limbo tolerable,” he said. “When bad things happen, when tragedy strikes, people should have people they can count on.”

A laundry list of helpers

The Railyard might have been the first establishment to help out, but it wasn’t even close to the only one.

On July 1, tabs were opened by private donors at Gillette Brewing Co. and Going Postal Pizzeria and the Ice Cream Cafe.

Gillette Brewing Co. took it a step further and hosted a free cookout for Blackjewel employees on the following Saturday, cooking up food and serving beverages to workers and their families.

Desarae Starck, a former county employee, posted on Facebook at 10 p.m. July 1, just hours after the shutdown, saying that affected coal miners and their families could contact her for Wyoming-raised beef, elk or deer meat.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned about Gillette, Wyoming, from moving here seven years ago it’s that we have a great supportive community,” Starck wrote. “It’s one way I’d like to say thank you and step up in a time of need for these hard workers who keep the lights on for the world.”

The post drew nearly 1,000 reactions.

Greg Kanash was one of the Blackjewel employees locked out of his job. He called Starck’s post “the nicest offer I’ve seen” and thanked the countless others who have been reaching out to help.

A Saturday afternoon cookout at Gillette Brewing Co., meat given out for free by a generous neighbor, pizza discounts at Pizza Carrello for all miners and Cam-plex waived the fee of its Friday night concert that week as well as a cornhole tournament.

Melisa Brower, a special education teacher at BOCES, also reached out to Blackjewel employees.

Brower’s nephew, Hunter Jaramillo, was diagnosed with Stage 3 Burkitts lymphoma in May 2018. As word spread about Hunter’s diagnosis, strangers in Gillette started to host fundraisers and for his medical expenses.

“People we didn’t even know,” Brower said in March.

Because of that response and having experienced the giving side of Gillette, Brower posted her phone number on Facebook offering to pay for groceries for any Blackjewel family affected by the lockout.

Days after the news broke, the Council of Community Services announced that its Food Pantry had been completely wiped out.

The nonprofit organization said it helped 19 more families than usual during the first week of July and was happy to do so. Unfortunately, that meant it was low on food for the upcoming week for families in need, and at a time when more help would be sought because of the lockout.

On July 12, city of Gillette employees dropped off over 600 pounds of food they collected in their own food drive to help replenish the Food Pantry.

Along with the city, a number of businesses helped and stepped up when the Food Pantry’s shelves were quickly emptied after the layoffs. Those included Campco Federal Credit Union, Redemption Church, KLJ Engineering, Campbell County Health, Walmart, Security State Bank and Edward Jones.

Around the same time, Pizza Carrello announced a special for Blackjewel employees for the foreseeable future. Smiling Moose Deli announced that it would give free sandwiches to Blackjewel employees and one of Cam-plex’s biggest shows of the year — John King — was opened to the public for free following the Blackjewel news.

Earlier this week, the Gillette Assistance League and Salvation Army announced a school supply drive for the families of Blackjewel miners.

The Salvation Army will collect school supplies from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Aug. 3 in front of Walmart. The distribution of the supplies is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. Aug. 8 and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 9 at the First United Methodist Church on Lakeway Avenue.

The church also will have a clothing giveaway from 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 8.

Keeping everyone on the same page

Rory Wallet is a Gillette native and lifetime resident of his hometown. Coal has supported his family and he’s worked in the mines for 11 years.

“I’ve seen all the humps, every boom and bust since 1979,” Wallet said.

Wallet was one of the 580 Blackjewel employees who were told not to report to work July 1. That day might have been the end of a chapter for him, but it also was the start of something unexpectedly special.

That afternoon, when he was hanging out at home with his sister — a coal miner for Peabody Energy — he figured there might be a way for Blackjewel employees to have one space where they get credible and helpful information.

Wallet started a Facebook group called “Blackjewel Employees Stand Together.”

“Just knowing from previous layoffs, whether it be from oil, gas or coal, energy families (know) how hard it is to get information together after it happens,” Wallet said. “Figuring out unemployment papers, insurance papers, finding a new job. We were sitting and talking and thought about getting a page together to have everything in one spot.”

The group had 600 members in the first afternoon. Most of them were local Wyoming folks who knew Wallet. But the group quickly blossomed into something more and has become a main source of information about the company’s continuing efforts to reopen the mines and support for one another. And what began as a group of mostly Wyoming Blackjewel miners has spread to include the company’s employees in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia as well.

Now the group has more than 2,200 members and continues to grow.

Wallet said his expectations of what the group could do have far exceeded his wildest dreams.

The page is routinely used by potential employers posting about open jobs, to report court hearing updates and solid information on Blackjewel, updates from the company’s human resource employees and most of all, ways the community can support the workers and how they can all help each other.

Wallet said that growing up in Gillette, one gets used to going through boom and bust cycles. He said that he wasn’t totally surprised at the amount of service the community reached out to give because that is just the Gillette way.

“It’s not just the coal miner code,” he said. “It’s the Gillette code.”

Wallet said he has noticed that the community was more prepared and organized this time around. Then again, he hates the way that every bust is practice for the next one.

“I hate to think about the next one, but after this we’ll knock it out of the park if we have to,” he said. “This community always reaches out, but it’s still a huge shock.”

The community response has been overwhelming to Wallet and so many of his coworkers.

“It warms your heart see that,” he said. “Gillette is a great community. When anything (like this) happens, we come together.”

Even more remarkable is how the Wyoming Blackjewel employees have embraced and reached out to their counterparts in the east. Those workers have missed on more paycheck than those at the company’s Wyoming mines. While Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr employees were paid with cashier’s checks just before the bankruptcy filing, about 1,100 employees in the east had their paychecks bounce, leaving many with negative balances and desperate for help.

While still unsure about their own jobs, the Wyoming workers through the Facebook group started organizing fundraisers and donation efforts to help the Blackjewel employees in the east.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved, Wallet said, adding that jeeping up the page has been one of the hardest jobs he’s ever had.

“I work harder on this page than I ever worked at my job, and I work at my job,” he said.

The one thing that stands out for Wallet about the community’s support is that the coal miners never asked for assistance.

“We never reached out for help,” he said. “It all snowballed on its own. All those donations, it almost brings you to tears. There’s something special about this place.”

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