Blackjewel: Bankruptcy and Lockout Go Deeper Than Numbers on a Ledger
By Patrick Filbin
July 8, 2019 - The numbers are attention-getting: 580 Wyoming coal miners locked out while 1,700 Blackjewel employees overall are in limbo as the company attempts to save itself through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.
Those 580 workers at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Campbell County operate the fourth and sixth largest thermal coal mines in the world, respectively. They produced 35.5 million tons of coal last year, and many are lifelong miners generations deep in PRB coal.
In Gillette, they’re more than numbers. They’re neighbors and coworkers, and as they wait to see if they’ll be going back to work their jobs with Blackjewel, move on to another Powder River Basin mine or have to move to find another good job, they each have a story.
They’re the faces behind the numbers of the PRB’s fifth major coal bankruptcy in less than four years.
Deep coal roots
It was about 3 p.m. Tuesday when the bartender at The Office Saloon placed another Budweiser on the coaster in front of Murray Clayton.
He lit a cigarette from his bar stool while watching a buddy start a game of pool with another friend.
About 24 hours before, Clayton went to town to cash his paycheck.
It was when he left the bank empty-handed that Clayton learned he was one of nearly 600 Blackjewel LLC employees who were suddenly locked out of their jobs.
Clayton was calm despite having had only a day to adjust to the initial shock. He’s been in coal mining most of his life, so this kind of news wasn’t entirely foreign to him. How long has he been in the industry exactly?
“A long time,” he said.
More than 30 years?
That’s the way it goes in Campbell County.
Buck Johnson is one of the more than 400 Blackjewel employees who have visited the Gillette office of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services this past week. He’s worked at Blackjewel’s Belle Ayr mine for 18 years.
“A lot of my life has been invested in that place,” Johnson said.
In the 1970s, Johnson said his father worked for Amax Coal, which previously owned Belle Ayr, for more than a quarter century. Johnson’s son Patrick started working at Blackjewel’s other Wyoming coal mine, Eagle Butte, just a month ago, making him a third-generation coal miner.
The family connections to coal don’t stop there. Johnson’s son-in-law works for Wyoming Machinery Co. on a contract at Eagle Butte, he has a brother who works for Peabody Energy and he has countless friends at every pit in the Powder River Basin.
Coal, Johnson said, is what makes Gillette what it is.
That’s why it was so difficult for the 580 Blackjewel employees, all of Campbell County and the entire state of Wyoming to watch as a large part of the state’s coal legacy crumbles.
‘Really, really stressful’
Alisha and Louis Walker met while working in Jackson. Alisha had a great job as a scrub tech in the health care industry.
Three years ago, Louis landed a job in Gillette working for Arch Coal.
“We moved here for that coal mine,” Alisha said. “I packed up all my kids to support Louis’ coal mining.”
Alisha started working as an EMT on a contract for the Blackjewel mines. If there were injuries or medical attention needed, she would be there to help until an ambulance could arrive. She really liked the work and later moved on to work at Wyodak.
She said that even in her early days at Blackjewel, there was a different rumor about the company every day.
About that same time, former Blackjewel President and CEO Jeff Hoops Sr. visited Gillette, looked every employee in the eye and told them that their job was safe, raises were on the way and that everything was under control.
That was far from the truth.
Now Louis is out of a job and the new home that the family built to help raise their five kids in — ages ranging from 9 to 23 — is suddenly another burden on the family.
“We just bought the house in February,” Alisha said. “Now we’re freaked out. We don’t know if we can make our mortgage, our car payments, four of our kids are at home.”
Alisha’s 19-year-old daughter worked at Eagle Butte but quit because she was uneasy about the company’s future. Now she works at Starbucks and both her and her boyfriend have picked up extra shifts to help chip in for the family since the Blackjewel fallout.
“It has been really, really stressful for our family,” she said.
Luckily, Louis got a job with Earth Work Solutions in Gillette and Alisha starts a new job Monday in the radiology department at Campbell County Memorial Hospital.
Still, Louis will be making $12 an hour less than he did at Blackjewel, a nearly $25,000 a year cut in pay. Alisha fully expects the family to be tight with money until something else changes.
‘Hold out and hope for the best’
Elliot Basner is another of Blackjewel’s locked-out workers.
Basner started at Belle Ayr mine in 2008 and has navigated the rapids there through the bankruptcies and several changes of ownership, but nothing has been this uncertain in more than a decade at the mine.
Basner said he’s never seen anything this drastic in the Powder River Basin coal industry.
Like other bankruptcies he’s been through, he thought the company would reorganize and the miners would keep working through it. That’s what happened when Belle Ayr’s previous owner, Alpha Natural Resources, declared bankruptcy. It’s what’s happening now as Cloud Peak Energy is nearly two months into its Chapter 11 reorganization. Both Peabody Energy and Arch Coal also recently went through bankruptcies, kept working throughout and have emerged leaner and more efficient companies.
“Being one of the profitable mines, I didn’t expect them to shut (us) down,” he said about Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, the world’s fourth and sixth most productive thermal coal mines. “It’s hard to see a place where you build friendships and a family-like atmosphere close down.”
Basner has been reading a lot about the Wyoming Blackjewel mines and that they together produced more than 35 million tons of coal last year. That statistic alone makes it that much more strange to him that 580 people were told to leave work Monday.
He said it’s hard to fathom seeing “those mines fail and be possibly liquidated. You don’t think in sports that two of the top 10 teams will just shut down.”
All the hard work he and his coworkers put in will feel like it was for nothing if the mines remain shuttered.
He also said he’s not sure what he’ll do if he can’t work for Blackjewel anymore. He has a son who will be a junior in high school next year, so he can’t easily pull up roots and move for a new job.
“I’m trying to hold back making a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “I’d hate to just run away from my house that I’ve worked on and made improvements on. I’m hoping I can stay local.”
He’s unsure if he wants to get back into coal. The writing is on the wall at Cloud Peak, and even if he’s hired on with one of the other coal companies, if layoffs ever happened he’d be one of the first to go as a new guy.
“Some of the other companies look like they’re just putting a Band-Aid on everything and those are only going to get ripped off,” he said.
The most disappointing part of it all is not knowing what’s going to happen next or when.
“You don’t know if you should sell everything you have or make the next house payment,” Basner said. “You try to just hold out and hope for the best.”
‘Hoops screwed us’
Mike Roberts has seen this story play out before.
He was one of hundreds of Powder River Basin miners who were laid off en masse in 2016. Roberts worked for the Buckskin mine and has been in coal for more than 20 years.
“I’ve been through it,” Roberts said. “Everyone thinks that the job is going to be there every day. I found out after 17 years that it’s not.”
Roberts got out of coal for a year and worked at a local tech company before signing up with Blackjewel. He said the election of President Donald Trump certainly helped he and others get jobs in the basin as coal companies saw Trump’s election as a sign of better days to come for the industry.
Roberts, much like every coal miner the News Record spoke to for this story, has heard the rumors and whispers about Blackjewel. It has a record of violations in other states and hadn’t paid production taxes to the state and Campbell County. In Monday’s bankruptcy filing, the county is listed as the company’s second largest unsecured creditor, owed $37 million.
Still, Roberts said he and his hundreds of coworkers couldn’t have predicted how messy the situation would get, and how quickly.
Roberts said he is holding out for now about applying for work elsewhere. He also doesn’t want to rush to re-up with another mine because then he’d have to start at the bottom of the pecking order. Today he’s a tech level 4 shovel operator and was due to hit level 5 in August.
If he got a job with another mine, he’d have to start back at level 1.
“The money is one thing,” he said. “But starting over I’d have to go back running truck. I don’t want to do that again. If I had to, I would.”
Roberts has a daughter in college and unlike last time he was laid off, doesn’t have debt to worry about. He said he feels for his coworkers who have young families and are in different stages of their lives.
His main frustration is with Hoops, who was forced out as the company’s CEO this past week.
“Hoops screwed us,” he said. “He’s a crook and we got had.”
“You’ve got to think about the trickle-down effect for everyone,” Roberts said. “Hoops doesn’t care. He’s got his millions. It’s wrong (and) I hope he gets his. Our 401(k) (accounts) are still in limbo. I don’t know when our last paycheck is coming. It’s a bad thing all the way around.”
Roberts said a buddy called him when he heard the news and joked about how former President Barack Obama and his administration’s policies were to blame for the recent layoffs.
“I told him, ‘This has nothing to do with Obama and everything to do with a crook,’” Roberts said.
Through it all, Roberts said he’s been amazed at the community’s response, the resiliency of his coworkers, the support the state has showed with workforce services and plans to keep an open, optimistic mind.
“Hopefully there is some light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
‘It still doesn’t feel real’
Brandi Black was at work when the call came in. The Monday morning meeting was a positive one. Her supervisors told her that company executives were preaching up the bankruptcy as a good thing for the company.
She was already a little suspicious when her check wasn’t direct deposited as usual June 28.
“They told us that the company filed for bankruptcy, that it’d be better for the company, blah blah blah,” Black said.
At 3 o’clock they were called back for a second meeting.
Everyone needed to leave the mine immediately and not report back to work until told to do so. There was a problem with the bankruptcy financing, there was no money to operate and they were locked out.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “It still doesn’t feel real. I’ve never filed for unemployment before and I did it this morning.”
Black went camping with a couple of other Blackjewel coworkers after the news broke. They said during the two days spent at the lake, they were constantly scanning their phones for news on social media and news sites.
“The last few days I feel like we have just been in a comatose state,” she said.
Coal is all Black and her family has known. Her father worked in the industry for 34 years and she just got into it herself a few years ago.
“My whole life has been coal mining,” she said. “My whole life has been centered around it. It’s all I know.”
Black said she had planned to move to Texas in another year, but now with the uncertainty with Blackjewel she may move earlier than she thought.
“If they call us back to go to work, I’ll go,” she said, but “that’s not a for-sure thing.”