By Greg Johnson
Gillette News Record
Via Wyoming News Exchange
GILLETTE — As Blackjewel LLC coal miners begin their third week locked out of the company’s dozens of mines in Wyoming, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, many are running out of patience and time waiting for the company to resume operations.
About 1,700 employees have been laid off since Blackjewel abruptly announced it was out of money and shut down its mines and sent workers home July 1. That includes nearly 600 from its flagship Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Campbell County.
After a first week of events that played out more like a soap opera than a bankruptcy proceeding, Blackjewel workers have been watching from the sidelines as the company had $20 million worth of emergency financing pulled, then a coup from creditors that forced out former president and CEO Jeff Hoops Sr.
Since then, Blackjewel’s new leadership and reorganization team has been reassuring employees that it’s No. 1 goal is to secure financing to reopen its mines and continue a Chapter 11 reorganization.
Although the next hearing with the U.S. Bankruptcy court isn’t scheduled until July 31, Blackjewel has said it wants to resolve its financial issues before then. In the meantime, it has about $2 million left of a $5 million post-petition loan it secured July 3. A condition of the financing was Hoops’ resignation.
The money is being used to provide security and necessary maintenance at mines.
In a status report filed Monday afternoon, Blackjewel says it’s been in discussions with one of its pre-petition secured lenders, Riverstone Credit Partners, and others to get the money to reopen.
“These efforts are ongoing, but have not yet produced a final agreement,” the status report says. Blackjewel “and their advisors will continue to pursue all reasonable alternatives for financing and will continue to keep the court and interested parties informed.”
While Blackjewel continues to work on securing the money necessary to finance its Chapter 11 process, its workers are struggling. None of the Wyoming employees have been paid since their June 28 payday, while about 1,100 eastern workers haven’t had a paycheck since July 14. The paychecks they were given June 28 bounced.
Those bounced paychecks, along with no guarantee of if or when they could be called back to work, has many families facing financial ruin. Some have filed letters with the bankruptcy court pleading for help to get what’s owed to them.
In a letter filed with the court Monday, Scotty Cox of Evarts, Kentucky, begs for relief.
“My last payroll check bounced, causing all my bills that are due to be returned and are now past due,” he wrote. “I am due a two-week paycheck this Friday, July 12, which I don’t expect to receive.
“This has caused my family a terrible hardship. We have no income, all our bills are due or are now past due. My family is so scared we don’t know what to do. … We are in danger of losing our home and our car. This is the worst thing that could have happened.”
He also said all he wants is to be paid and go back to work.
“I have a wife, a 5-year-old son and a 10-month old daughter,” his letter concludes. “Please, we beg you to help us any way possible.”
Most of Blackjewel’s employees have been networking through a Facebook group started by Wyoming miners called Blackjewel Employees Stand Together. As time goes on, more are reporting they’re finding other jobs or have given up on Blackjewel being able to reopen its mines in time for them to return before having to accept jobs elsewhere.
Chase Patterson was one of the Wyoming Blackjewel workers locked out, and while he was hoping to return to work, he said last week he wasn’t holding out much hope the longer the lockout drags on.
“I need the stability,” he said about knowing where his next paycheck is coming from. “I can’t handle not knowing what’s going to happen each week. … Even though it’s rocked us, it’s forced us to look at other options, which isn’t a bad thing.”
He said the real question will be how many qualified, trained workers will go back whenever the mines can reopen.
“How many other core people are leaving?” he said. “I’ve talked with a lot of them and they said they’re leaving and not coming back.”