Despite Republican promises to revive and protect the coal industry in the United States and Kentucky, Blackjewel, the nation’s 6th largest coal producer, has stopped paying thousands of its mining employees in a move that is wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of mining communities. The consequences are a direct result of the company’s recent bankruptcy filing.
On July 1, Blackjewel LLC, based in West Virginia, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, stilling its mines across the country, including 10 in Virginia alone. In total, about 1,700 Blackjewel employees in mining operations across Virginia, Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky are still out of work.
Just three years earlier, Donald Trump repeatedly promised America’s coal miners a crusade to save their jobs, a promise upon which he has failed to deliver, which has the potential to undermine his campaign as he gears up for reelection in 2020.
“I’m thinking about the miners all over this country,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia in 2016. “We’re gonna put the miners back to work. We’re gonna put the miners back to work. We’re gonna get those mines open.”
Trump: ‘We’re going to save the coal industry!’ Reality: Another large coal company is shutting down and screwing over its workers
Posted by NowThis Politics on Thursday, August 1, 2019
Other prominent Republican politicians from coal-producing states, such as Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, have failed to act on behalf of miners in the wake of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.
Technically, Blackjewel has yet to officially lay off these employees, leaving workers in a state of financial purgatory. Because their employment has not been officially terminated, Blackjewel workers are unable to collect unemployment insurance benefits through their individual states of residency.
But despite not being officially laid off, Blackjewel’s employees aren’t getting paid either. In fact, many have seen their recent paychecks taken back.
At the end of June, Blackjewel’s workers were still set to receive their latest paycheck from the organization. The checks arrived in their accounts on June 28. On July 1 — the day their bankruptcy was announced — Blackjewel clawed them back. For those enrolled in direct deposit, Blackjewel surreptitiously rolled back its employees end-of-June paychecks, and nearly a month later, many still haven’t received them.
Miners are reporting only hearing news of their paychecks via social media.
On July 3, Tony Saylor, a Blackjewel miner in Harlan County, Kentucky received word that his June paycheck from Blackjewel was taken out of his bank account at the exact moment he was at the doctor receiving a brain scan which found a 77-millimeter mass in his brain. Saylor had surgery to partially remove the tumor a few days later.
“Right now, I hope they all get jobs first. I’m hoping to recover and everything goes good for me. But I wish they all had jobs, they all worked, they all need it,” Saylor said.
According to reporting by the Lexington Herald Leader, Blackjewel workers in Kentucky also said that their 401k contributions and child support payments have been taken out of their checks for months, and were then not deposited by the company into their accounts.
On July 15, a priest in Lexington, Kentucky, Father Jim Sichko, paid for the electric bills of about 200 out-of-work Blackjewel miners, tabbing at $20,434.55.
“These checks won’t bounce,” Sichko said. “These men and their families, they sacrifice their lives. They had a good job, and now they’re out of luck.”
In addition to the financial havoc it is wreaking on its workers, Blackjewel owes $6 million in royalties to the state of Kentucky and $1.6 million to Virginia. The company also owes $60 million to the United States Department of the Interior, and has rung up more than $926,000 in outstanding fines from the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Despite the financial meltdown, the former owner of Blackjewel, Jeffrey Hoops — who was forced to resign — is still vowing to complete construction on a lavish $30 million-dollar golf-course in Milton, West Virginia by April 2020. “We’re going to have a 3,500 seat coliseum that’s going to be a replica of the Roman Coliseum,” Hoops said in March 2019.
The bad news for the coal industry doesn’t stop at Blackjewel.
Blackjewel’s sudden closure joins a trend of financial hardships endured by coal miners across the country since President Trump’s inauguration.
Since 2017, six other major U.S. coal companies — Cambrian Holding, Cloud Peak Energy, Trinity Coal, Mission Coal, Westmoreland Coal, and Armstrong Energy — have also filed for bankruptcy.
In April 2018, in Kenosha County, Wisconsin — a swing-district in a must-win state for Trump’s campaign in 2020 — We Energies, one of Wisconsin’s largest coal-fired plants, permanently shuttered operations at it’s Pleasant Prairie facility. We Energies employed roughly 150 employees at the plant.
But in the present, the livelihood of the disenfranchised employees of Blackjewel is still lingering in the balance.
Whether or not the White House — or congressional leaders like McConnell — are able and willing to step in to save the economic security of these Blackjewel employees remains unclear. For now, Trump’s failure to act appears to be yet another campaign promise made and broken during his first-term as President of the United States.
“We want to be heard,” said Joe Williamson, who worked at a mine in Tazewell County, Virginia owned by Blackjewel. “We want what’s ours — we worked every day for it.”