October 1, 2022

IIn July 2019, about 1,700 miners working for a subsidiary of one of the largest coal mine operators in the US, Blackjewel, discovered that their wages had increased. Many were left with negative bank accounts as bills and late fees piled up.

Blackjewel then filed for bankruptcy and abruptly shut down its mines in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming, laying off miners without notice and leaving them unpaid for work they had completed in the past two weeks.

This led several miners to start a protest in Harlan County, Kentucky, blocking a train full of coal from one of the Blackjewel mines from leaving until the miners were paid what they were owed.

In 2019, unemployed Blackjewel miners blocked the railroad that led to their old mine in Cumberland, Kentucky.
In 2019, unemployed Blackjewel miners blocked the railroad that led to their old mine in Cumberland, Kentucky. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Now, more than three years later, hundreds of miners and their families are still waiting for what is owed to them. And, despite the passage of time, the wounds left by their treatment are fresh – as are the economic hardships they endure in parts of the country where mining was often one of the few well-paying jobs.

Lynne Huskinson was working as a miner in Gillette, Wyoming, at one of Blackjewel’s mines when it went bankrupt.

“There are people and suppliers who have not been compensated for the work or product they supplied since 2019,” Huskinson said. “They told us one thing in the morning, and in the afternoon we were fired.”

She described problems such as delayed wages and safety issues while working in the mine. She relied on unemployment while waiting for answers from her employer, eventually deciding to retire rather than return to work at the same mines after they were sold to different owners.

“I remember the day they fired us. They called the sheriff to protect the mine so the miners wouldn’t attack a manager or steal their own tools before they left,” she added.

A September 2019 photo shows a poster urging residents of Gillette, Wyoming to stay strong.  The closure of Blackjewel LLC's Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Wyoming has added more uncertainty to the economics of coal in the Powder River Basin.
A September 2019 photo shows a poster urging residents of Gillette, Wyoming to stay strong. Photo: Mead Gruver/AP

After weeks in federal court, Blackjewel agreed on a $5.1 million settlement to cover back wages the miners were owed, but the miners filed a claim class action to claim wages and benefits owed to them under federal law, since the workers did not receive 60 days notice of layoff under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining (Warning) Act.

In February 2021, a settlement A $17.3 million settlement was reached in the case, but workers have yet to receive any of that money despite many mines being sold off and reopened under new owners. Other mine sites are still abandoned due to bankruptcy to face reclamation and cleanup costs borne by local or state agencies.

Blackjewel investors have also filed theirs lawsuit against former president and CEO Jeffery Hoops, accusing him of foreclosing on the company’s assets before filing for bankruptcy to keep funds away from creditors.

Hoops was building a luxury resort in Milton, West Virginia received million tax credits. The golf course had a soft opening in August 2022, while the construction of the rest of the settlement suffered significant delays.

The investor’s claims against the Hoops were dismissed and the terms of the dismissal remained confidential. A court ruling on a lawsuit against United Bank for withholding debt loans to keep Blackjewel operating through bankruptcy is expected to be announced in the next few months, according to a lawyer representing Blackjewel investors. They declined to comment on the record.

United Bank did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“It’s really a joke,” said Jimmy Justus, who worked as a miner for Blackjewel in Virginia before his abrupt layoff led to his bank closing his account. “If I’d done what Hoops did, I’d be in jail, but he’s still living his best life.”

Leanne Parsons’ husband worked at Blackjewel in Lee County, Virginia. He was left with a $2,700 overdraft in his bank account weeks after being told he was suddenly out of a job. Parsons then found out she was pregnant, and after they couldn’t find work in the area, they picked up and moved to Alabama for a new coal job.

“[A lot of other] people just don’t have the means to get around and many of them have already developed the initial stages of black lung.”

She said many workers in the area are still waiting for compensation they are owed, and some are relying on unemployment. Many are too old to move elsewhere to find other coal jobs.

“We want a clear answer. Is there money or not? “Even if it’s a dollar, that dollar means something to everyone who went through it,” Parsons added. “Where’s the money? His resort is almost finished. I just don’t get it. Why didn’t they freeze Jeff Hoops’ accounts? Why does he still have access to all that money?”

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