A Former Coal Tycoon Donated Over $1 Million to Coal Miners Whose Employer Declared Bankrputcy
By Lauren del Valle
August 6, 2019 - For the eighth straight day yesterday, miners blocked cars full of coal from passing on a railway track in Eastern Kentucky to protest their employer, who stopped paying their wages after declaring bankruptcy.
Now, to ease the miners' financial burden, a former coal tycoon has donated over $1 million to directly assist those miners and their families.
On Monday, the Richard and Leslie Gilliam Foundation donated over $1 million to give 508 Blackjewel miners in immediate need $2,000 each. Checks were presented to community assistance groups in Harlan and Letcher counties in Kentucky and Wise County, Virginia.
Blackjewel LLC filed for bankruptcy on July 1, and thousands of miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia have been without work and haven't been paid since. The coal operator owes its 1,700 miners about $5 million in back pay, according to attorney Joe Childers, whose firm represents miners in litigation with the employer.
CNN has been unable to reach Blackjewel LLC for comment.
The central Appalachian communities have rallied around the miners and their families, during what they call a financial crises that started without warning. As a part of fundraising efforts, immediate-need databases were created by community groups in the region, and every miner on those lists will get that $2,000 check from the foundation as early as Friday.
This news comes the same day as litigation in West Virginia federal bankruptcy court started, in which a judge is to approve the sale of Blackjewel mining assets that were sold in an auction August 1-3. The backpay complicates the litigation because, by law, if there is an auction and there is money as a result of that, the money would go to the miners before other unsecured creditors.
"The Best Man I Ever Worked For"
Brandon Pearson, 27, is among the Blackjewel employees who've been taking shifts to block the railway all hours of the day. Pearson's first coal mining job at 18 years old was for Richard Gilliam's company. In fact, many of the miners in Blackjewel mines worked for Gilliam.
"Richard Gilliam, he's the best man I ever worked for," Pearson told CNN while on a bus home from West Virginia where miners flocked to protest Blackjewel at court during the bankruptcy hearing.
Pearson never met Richard Gilliam but says management had a way of communicating with employees that "you felt like you knew him personally."
Richard Gilliam grew up in the coal mining region, and built his business there. "When he heard about the financial crisis, he just felt sad and his heart went out to them," Julia Gilliam Sterling, Gilliam's daughter who works for the family foundation, told CNN.
When Richard Gilliam sold his coal operating company, Cumberland Resources Corporation, and its affiliates for $960 million in 2010, he started the foundation with his late wife, putting $100 million into the foundation. An additional $80 million of those sale profits went straight to the employees he left behind. About 500 employees received $4,300 for every year they'd worked for Gilliam, plus an additional 401(k) contribution.
"He really values those employees and everything they did for him, and they were a huge part of his personal success. His hope is this will spur and encourage others with success in business to help the people that made them successful," Gilliam Sterling told CNN.
Since selling the coal operating business, Richard Gilliam runs a family investment firm and serves as the director of his foundation.