coal mining

A week and a half after a major coal company filed for bankruptcy and shut down operations, Gov. Ralph Northam has announced how Virginia will assist affected miners.

In a press release late Wednesday afternoon, Northam expressed concern for roughly 450 Virginia employees of Blackjewel LLC who were left in the lurch when the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy documents July 1 and sent miners home.

Many paychecks that were issued in late June have bounced or been withdrawn from their bank accounts.

Northam has directed the Virginia Employment Commission to waive the standard week-long waiting period for unemployment benefits for affected employees, and has authorized overtime pay for Virginia Career Works representatives helping to connect displaced workers with job training programs and new career opportunities.

Friday, the VEC announced four events next week to help miners file for unemployment and get more information:

• Tuesday, July 16: 9-11 a.m., Virginia Career Works, 1725 Park Ave. SW, Norton; 2-4 p.m., former St. Charles Water Authority building, 190 Monarch Rd., St. Charles.

• Wednesday, July 17, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., and Friday, July 19, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Virginia Career Works, 1928 Front St., Richlands.

Blackjewel employees can file for unemployment benefits and access additional support online at www.vec.virginia.gov, by calling the customer contact center at 866/832-2363 or by visiting a Career Works Center.

The center serving Norton and the counties of Wise, Lee, Scott and Dickenson is the VEC office at 1725 Park Ave. SW, Norton. The phone number is 276/679-9413.

DIGGING OUT OF A HOLE

“We went from him making $2,900 every two weeks salary, to my little $400 contribution,” the woman from Keokee wrote Tuesday. “I have two teenagers, and no way to support them at this time . . . I don’t know how we are going to feed our kids much less pay any of our household bills.”

Her husband, a miner for Blackjewel, hasn’t been to work since July 1, when “he showed up to work and was told they are not working again until they get called,” she explained in an email. “We haven’t been contacted since.”

Blackjewel and related company Revelation Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a West Virginia federal court July 1.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, echoed a story told by many Blackjewel employees within the last week: Miners were paid before the Chapter 11 filing, then their pay was clawed back.

Her husband was paid June 28. “We deposited his check that day,” she wrote. “On July 2nd we were notified that the checks bounced. We are currently $1,900 negative in our bank accounts.”

She heard that Blackjewel employees are supposed to get paid this coming Friday, she wrote, “but won’t get this check at all. We are being told by other employees that until the mines calls you back to work, you won’t receive your back owed money.”

Blackjewel told a different story in a release issued Wednesday. The company stated: “Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia employees who have returned to work have been issued hard-copy checks for time worked prior to the Chapter 11 filing as these locations do not have a pre-existing system for electronic fund transfers. The funds are available for these checks to be deposited. However, some employees have reported issues with their local banks honoring the checks. Blackjewel is working as quickly as possible to address these issues, and its primary bank, United Bank, has posted a public letter on the company’s restructuring website encouraging local banks to ‘consider such checks for deposit, subject to [such] bank confirming availability of funds through customary check-clearing processes.’”

While they live in Keokee, the miner’s wife wrote, her kids attend Union High School in Big Stone Gap and “we do everything in Wise County completely . . . for every $100 I spend locally over $60 stays in this community.”

Blackjewel employs more than 490 miners in Virginia, she wrote. “That’s 490 families that are now all struggling to make it.”

In Harlan County, Ky., local government officials and others are rallying to help Blackjewel employees and families hit by the company’s shutdown of mines on the other side of Black Mountain.

“In Virginia, they aren’t even acknowledging anything,” the Keokee woman wrote.

Her husband can’t sign up for unemployment payments or other assistance “because he isn’t officially laid off,” she noted.

In separate emails Tuesday, Wise County Administrator Michael Hatfield and Lee County Adminstrator Dane Poe wrote that neither county’s government had been alerted about the bankruptcy filing by Blackjewel or Revelation and the companies have not had any contact with them.

DEVELOPMENTS

In the July 1 bankruptcy filing, Revelation and Blackjewel stated they owe at least $500 million in liabilities and were unable to make July payroll.

Revelation and BlackJewel have operations near coal camps surrounding Appalachia and in Lee, Russell and Buchanan counties.

The two companies hold 79 mine permits in Virginia, according to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

According to published reports, miners were paid in late June because the companies expected to get short-term financing to cover payroll. The financing fell through and the checks were clawed back.

This week, Blackjewel employees in Wyoming and West Virginia separately filed class action lawsuits seeking to recover workers’ lost wages. The suits claim the company violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) by not giving workers 60 days notice before terminating their jobs.

Meanwhile, a handful of workers are returning to mine sites for caretaker duties.

In its Wednesday release, Blackjewel stated that “the basic operations aimed at protecting the safety and security of its coal mines in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming have resumed, allowing more than 140 employees to return to work.”

The release acknowledged that the company was unable to obtain initial short-term funding, but said it has since secured $5 million of debtor-in-possession bridge financing, “which has allowed the company to bring back the first wave of employees who are crucial to ensuring the safety of its mines and equipment while it works towards a longer-term solution.”

One condition of the financing deal was that company chief executive Jeff Hoops step down.

“Management — and everyone involved in Blackjewel’s Chapter 11 case — understands that every day that passes adds to the hardship our employees and their families are experiencing, and we want to emphasize the urgency with which we are approaching this situation,” interim CEO David Beckman was quoted as saying. “We are doing everything possible to get our employees back to work and ensure they are able to deposit their paychecks as quickly as possible.”

The release adds: “Blackjewel employees currently holding checks issued by the company, as well as local banks presented with Blackjewel checks, should contact the Blackjewel restructuring hotline at 844/234-1462 with any questions. The company will respond as quickly as possible to address any issues you may be experiencing.”

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