March 30, 2023

i amn July 2019, nearly 1,700 coal miners working for an affiliate of BlackJewell, the largest coal mine operator in the United States, saw their paychecks bounced. Many had negative bank accounts when 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 without pay for the work they had completed in the past two weeks.

This prompted several miners in Harlan County, Kentucky to start a protest, blocking a train loaded with coal from a mine in Blackjewel until the miners were paid their dues.

In 2019, unemployed Blackjewel coal miners blockaded the rail line that led to their old mine in Cumberland, Kentucky.
In 2019, unemployed Blackjewel coal miners blockaded the rail line 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 their dues. And, despite the passage of time, the wounds from their treatment are fresh – as they endure economic hardship in parts of the country where working in the mines was often one of the few well-paying jobs around.

At the time of the bankruptcy, Lynn Huskinson worked as a coal miner in Gillette, Wyoming at a Blackjewel mine.

“There are people and vendors who have not received refunds for work or products returned since 2019,” Huskinson said. “We were told one thing in the morning and given the afternoon off.”

He described issues such as late pay and safety issues while working in the mines He relied on unemployment while waiting to hear back from his employer, eventually deciding to retire rather than work at the same mines once they were sold to different owners.

“I remember the day they laid us off. They called the sheriff to guard the mine so that the miners could not approach a manager or steal their own equipment before they left,” he added.

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

A few weeks later in federal court, Blackjewel agreed The miners were owed a $5.1 million settlement to cover back wages, but the miners sued A class action lawsuit to claim wages and benefits owed to them under federal law, because the workers were not given 60 days’ notice of their layoff under the Workforce Adjustment and Retraining Notice (CAUTION) Act.

In February 2021, a disposal The lawsuit reached $17.3m, but the workers have yet to receive any of those funds, despite many mines being sold and reopened under new owners. Other mine sites are still abandoned due to bankruptcy front Recovery and cleanup costs that fall to local or state agencies.

BlackJewel investors also filed their own case Former president and CEO Jeffrey Hoopes, accused of stripping the company of assets before filing for bankruptcy to keep funds away from creditors.

Hoops is building a luxury resort in Milton, West Virginia received Millions in tax breaks. The golf course was one Soft opening As of August 2022, construction of the rest of the resort has experienced significant delays.

Lawsuits filed by investors against Hoops were dismissed, the terms of the dismissal being confidential A court ruling in a lawsuit against United Bank for managing BlackJewel through its bankruptcy filing is expected to be released in the next few months, according to an attorney 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 the sudden layoff that caused his bank to close his account. “If I’d done what Hoopes did I’d be in jail but he’s still living his best life.”

Leanna Parsons’ husband worked at BlackJewel in Lee County, Virginia. A $2,700 overdraft was left in his bank account for weeks after he was suddenly told he no longer had a job. Parsons then learns she is pregnant, and after not finding work in the area, they move to Alabama for a new coal job.

“[A lot of other] People simply don’t have the means to move and many of them have already developed early stages of black lung.”

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

“We want a straight answer. Money or not? Even if it was a dollar, that dollar meant something to everyone who went through it,” added Parsons. “Where is the money? His resort is almost over. I just don’t get it. Why didn’t they freeze Jeff Hoops’ account? Why does he still have access to all this money?

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