Emotions were raw for many of the dozens of Blackjewel LLC workers who filed into the Gillette office of the Wyoming Workforce Center early Tuesday morning.
“You’ve got people here who are showing all the emotions: mad, glad, sad,” said Chad Bonsness, a third-generation coal miner who spent the last two decades working at the Eagle Butte coal mine just north of Gillette.
Bonsness was one of about 580 Campbell County coal mine employees who found themselves suddenly out of work Monday afternoon when Blackjewel abruptly shut down the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines in Campbell County.
The shutdown came just hours after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and minutes after failing to secure a $20 million line of credit for emergency funds to continue operations at its 32 properties across the country.
The sudden shutdown was a sad conclusion to a difficult four-day stretch for the company. It started when workers weren’t paid as promised Friday. They were paid with cashier’s checks Sunday, then were met with the bankruptcy news first thing Monday.
While many of his neighbors and fellow Blackjewel employees were angry and stunned while filling out unemployment paperwork Tuesday, Bonsness said he has no hard feelings.
“I worked there 20 years and I’m grateful for it,” he said. “It’s like your family (at the mine) because you spend half your life with these guys. … I did the job I loved and you can’t complain about that.”
While grateful for the past 20 years, Bonsness said he has no illusions that there may be some difficult times ahead for Blackjewel workers if the company can’t secure financing and begin operating again.
“Yes, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “You have 600 people looking for the same types of jobs.”
Michael Robert and Nancy Reynolds both worked night shifts for Blackjewel. They said they were frustrated by an overall lack of communication that left some employees learning of the lockout on social media.
“That’s what kills me about this thing,” said Robert, who said he was told not to come in for his Monday night shift through a text.
What’s unsettling for many, Reynolds said, is how sudden the shutdown happened. Even though there were signs the company was in trouble, the employees weren’t prepared for how the lockout unfolded.
“It just took me awhile to process it all,” she said. “The reality of it is a little bit more today. I didn’t really expect it.”
Bankruptcy and lockout
Unable to manage about $500 million in debt and liabilities, West Virginia-based Blackjewel LLC and its president and CEO, Jeff Hoops, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in a West Virginia federal bankruptcy court Monday morning.
That’s the news that greeted miners when they reported for work at the Eagle Butte mine early Monday. Employees were gathered in a meeting, told about the bankruptcy and sent off to do their jobs. A few hours later, they were called back.
“They pulled us into another meeting and (a manager) came in and told us, ‘We don’t have the money. The bankruptcy didn’t go as planned and we couldn’t pay you guys,’” said one employee who asked not to be identified. “We’re loading our toolboxes and everything right now.”
What didn’t go as planned was United Bank of West Virginia denying Blackjewel’s application for $20 million in credit to keep its mines afloat. Company officials learned of the denial as a scheduled court hearing was about to convene to rule on first-day bankruptcy motions, including an emergency motion to allow the company to continue mining.
Instead, the hearing was adjourned with no action taken, said a clerk at the court. Should Blackjewel secure money to cover those operating expenses, a new motion could be brought to court.
When contacted by the Gillette News Record on Tuesday morning, Hoops said he didn’t have time to answer questions about the bankruptcy and mine closings.
“I’m too busy trying to save these people’s jobs,” he said.
With the bankruptcy in limbo, so are the jobs of hundreds of area families and Campbell County, which is owed about $37 million in unpaid production taxes.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Sheridan-based conservation group, has been outspoken about Blackjewel LLC and its spotty history in other states.
“We are deeply concerned about Blackjewel’s employees and their benefits as well as the millions of dollars in delinquent ad valorem taxes,” said Joyce Evans, the group’s chairwoman, in a statement. “Furthermore, we worry about who will continue the ($247 million worth of) reclamation efforts at both mines and whether the financial guarantees will cover the hundreds of millions of dollars in reclamation bonds.”
While Hoops said the company is trying to get its employees back to work, state and local officials already are planning to potentially handle hundreds of unemployment claims and help with insurance, job searches and other services, said Rick Mansheim, manager of the Gillette Wyoming Workforce Center.
He said the center at 551 Running W Drive in Gillette will have extended hours from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. the rest of this week, then from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. next week.
In addition to the extended hours, Wyoming Workforce Services will be at the Gillette College Technical Education Center at 2 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. Monday. Other efforts are in the works for a potential job fair and secure money to help with career retraining.
Mansheim said his office learned about the lockout when a woman from one of the mines came in at about 3 p.m. Monday saying she’d just been laid off and headed straight there.
“This one really caught us off-guard,” he said. “We had no idea this was coming.”
For Bonsness, the situation still feels surreal. The saying that the last one to leave should turn out the lights applies as he and another worker were the last two at Eagle Butte on Monday. They went around to make sure all the lights and equipment were turned off and placed appropriately.
Bonsness said he was reflective while making those rounds.
“The last drive down the haul road was pretty lonely,” he said. “You’re thinking that you know this might be your last time out there.”