Eleven days into a lockout at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines in Campbell County, nearly 600 Wyoming Blackjewel LLC employees are about to miss their first paycheck.
Friday is supposed to be payday for one of the nation’s largest coal producers, which employs about 1,700 people at operations in Wyoming, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
It’s been a whirlwind start to the month that saw Blackjewel file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization the morning of July 1, only to suddenly shut down its mines when emergency financing fell through. Hundreds of local workers have been filing for unemployment and looking for other jobs while also hoping for a quick resolution to the company’s financing problem that will allow them to go back to working jobs some have been doing for decades.
Missing that first payday brings home the gravity of the situation for many of Blackjewel’s workers and families, said Michelle Young, a heavy equipment operator at the Eagle Butte mine who helped organize a Thursday fundraiser for her coworkers. The event raised about $2,400.
While she recognizes that many families are one missed paycheck removed from financial hardship, Young said she’s OK for now. She also said she’s confident the mines will eventually operate again.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of them not opening back up, it’s a matter of when they’ll open back up,” she said. Until then, “We have to figure out how to make ends meet.
“For me, I don’t live beyond my means, but the issue lies where there are a lot of people who will be hurting right away,” she added. “A lot of them are ready to work and they need to find jobs.”
Young said Thursday’s fundraiser, and other events likely to be held in the future if the lockout drags on, is an example of how generous and loyal the Campbell County community can be. Even some who have been put out of work by the lockout also are donating to help others.
“It’s just something we can do to help those ones who are struggling who don’t have another job yet or don’t have any money saved up like some of us do,” she said. “I know that this community has stepped up right away and has been supper supportive and super willing in helping us out.”
At Blackjewel’s eastern mines, about 1,100 workers are missing their second paychecks. That’s because the checks they were issued June 28 bounced when $20 million in emergency financing was pulled at the last minute after the bankruptcy filing. In a follow-up court hearing, a Blackjewel attorney admitted the company had counted on that money being approved and available July 1 to cover those paychecks.
While Wyoming’s nearly 600 full-time employees were paid, along with about 100 other contractors, part-time workers and vendors, they were paid two days late with cashier’s checks flown in by former company president and CEO Jeff Hoops. That’s because the usual direct deposit of that money into their accounts was blocked. After some initial problems with banks not honoring the cashier’s checks, nearly all of the Wyoming employees have received their June 28 pay, according to bankruptcy court records.
The issues with eastern employees not getting paid, and in many cases having their deposits reversed by banks after already paying bills with the money, were part of what led to the removal of Hoops and any of his family members from Blackjewel. A new reorganization team was named and the company has since maintained its No. 1 goal is to secure financing to proceed with a Chapter 11 reorganization and reopen the mines as soon as possible.
“Management — and everyone involved in Blackjewel’s Chapter 11 case — understands that every day that passes adds to the hardship our employees and their families are experiencing, and we want to emphasize the urgency with which we are approaching this situation,” said Interim CEO David Beckman in a Wednesday prepared statement. “We are doing everything possible to get our employees back to work and ensure they are able to deposit their paychecks as quickly as possible.”
The company has set a July 31 deadline to secure that financing. In the mean time, another hearing is scheduled for Friday to present other motions related to a Chapter 11 reorganization. Those include getting the go-ahead to pay employees, taxes and critical vendors to resume a normal course of operations. While Blackjewel may be granted permission to make those payments, it hasn’t as yet secured money to do so.
For now, Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr workers will have to get by the best they can. When a significant layoff happens in a small community, the financial shock wave can reach a wide radius, said Felicia Toth, who’s operated 4T Pawn in Gillette for 25 years.
When times are tough, Toth said she often sees an uptick in people coming in looking to pawn or sell their belongings. The difficulty with that can be too many people needing money and not enough being able to spend, which means she can be stretched with how much help her business can provide.
“I haven’t seen a huge influx of people yet, but I anticipate business to be much more once people start missing paychecks,” she said. “I’m just going to do what I can to try and help as many as I can. Most people understand there’s a finite amount of money to go the distance.
“But once people miss that paycheck, it’ll be imperative for some of them to get some money. (On Thursday), I spoke to one gentleman who said he just moved to Gillette for a (coal mining) job, but now he’s moving to Colorado for another mine job.”
Toth said she saw firsthand the economic devastation a mass layoff can have on Gillette when 500 miners were laid off in a 24-hour period in the spring of 2016. Coupled with a bust in the local oil industry at the time, she said the desperation was real.
“It’s so tragic and we try to maintain some dignity and some passion for people,” she said. “I feel it too, just like everybody else.”
Local Blackjewel workers haven’t been taking the lockout sitting down, either. Many of them have already sought unemployment paperwork and guidance from the Gillette office of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. More than 400 went through the office by the end of last week, and hundreds attended a Wednesday job fair at the Gillette College Technical Education Center.
For others like Steve Gulley, who has spent the last 43 years working at Belle Ayr, the mine and the people working there have become a second home. He knows he’s close to retirement, but hopes for a quick reopening and a chance to get back to work.
Until then, Gulley joked that he’s already spent too much time “sitting around the house wondering if the wife is going to kill me.”