Community supports miners stranded by Blackjewel bankruptcy
In 2017, West Virginia-based Blackjewel was the country’s sixth-largest coal producer, with more mining permits than any other coal company in the nation, but on July 1, Blackjewel abruptly filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closed 30 mines. More than 1,400 people were suddenly jobless, including 430 in Southwest Virginia.
Their last paychecks also bounced, and with the company’s assets tied up in bankruptcy court, it’s not clear when miners will go back to work or get paid.
Mines closing or laying off workers is far from unusual in Southwest Virginia, but the suddenness of the Blackjewel closures and bankruptcy is out of the ordinary, and help for the miners and their families has come from several sources — businesses, the state government, community colleges and many others.
“The company,” explains Rachel Patton, director of business services at the Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board, “is supposed to issue a WARN notice and either give their employees 90 days’ notice or give them 90 days of severance pay. Typically, when we get a WARN notice, we really like to go onsite to an employer, if they will let us, and start providing these services before the separation date. Obviously, that couldn’t happen here. … It really put a lot of these families in a very unstable situation.”
In July, the Virginia Employment Commission held rapid response events across the region, making it easy for miners to sign up for unemployment benefits, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as resources from local social services and community colleges. The Richard and Leslie Gilliam Foundation, created by Southwest Virginia natives who made their fortune in coal, contributed $250,000, providing a $2,000 stipend for each out-of-work miner in Virginia.
In August, Blackjewel’s properties were auctioned off, and the U.S. bankruptcy court in the Southern District of West Virginia approved bids, although the federal government must give its OK before the purchases are finalized. Tennessee-based Kopper Glo LLC successfully bid on the Black Mountain and Lone Mountain mines on the Virginia-Kentucky line. It has offered $1 million in compensation for displaced miners, whom Kopper Glo says will be put back to work as soon as possible.
But many people are moving on, and more than 57 former mine workers have already found new work through two job fairs sponsored by the workforce development board, Patton says, including 50 jobs in the coal industry.
“There were coal mines that were calling us that were going, ‘We really want to give these folks a job.’”