The Day After: Workers Seek Assistance

Workforce Services Center

By 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services was swamped. The line of computers facing the front windows were completely full as workers from Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines filed unemployment claims online. A crowd of just about as many waited behind them. Workforce staff bustled through the room, answering questions and doing what they could to help.

A former Belle Ayr worker waiting in line, who wished to remain anonymous, ribbed his friends at the computers, joking they were taking too long and making the rest of them wait. His good humor and laughs belied the mood in the room, but he shrugged. What can he do? He’s in shock just like the rest of them. He had been on days off but heard immediately from co-workers Monday afternoon around 2:30 p.m. They’d told him the power was shut off and workers were escorted off the premises and were told that there was no money to pay them or keep operations going.

He shook his head. Too many questions remain unanswered. Things like the paycheck he received over the weekend when it didn’t arrive on Friday’s scheduled payday.

A woman beside him said her paycheck went through but the bank still has four-to-five days to deny it. His was deposited, he thought, though a debate ensued about whether those checks were actually bank drafts or certified cashier’s checks. Others they know have deposited them then taken out all their money or cashed them first before depositing that money. Their 401k accounts and his health savings account (HSA) are also in question.

“Jeff Hoops (Blackjewel’s CEO, who owns and operates both mines along with other holdings) is already three months behind on our 401k payments, so who knows?” he said, “but I hear he’s building a resort in West Virginia with our money.”

As of now, the status of both jobs and benefits are currently on hold until further notice, following Monday afternoon’s hearing in West Virginia District Court where Blackjewel’s motion to request emergency relief funds to support the company’s operations in Wyoming and other states in the interim was either denied or not acted upon. Court documents had not been updated as of Tuesday morning.

For now, it’s a waiting game as far as he’s concerned but he’s already moving on with an interview scheduled in the morning. He’s been through this before, he noted, and is in the same boat as the rest of the people in this room.

“I know pretty much everyone in here,” he said, gesturing at the couple dozen people in the room.

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“We’re all in this together,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s just trying to figure out how to collect his personal belongings. The first thing he did was call out to the mine to see if he could come get his personal stuff. No, he was told. For now, the doors are closed. After he’s done here, he’ll swing by the Sherriff’s Office to see if anything can be done.

They’ve already gotten many such calls to this effect, according to CCSO Undersheriff Quentin Reynolds. They are currently in the process of figuring out what to do, Reynolds explained, as it’s a civil situation where vetting claims to various objects gets a little iffy when trying to verify if said objects belong to the recipients claiming them.

“We’ll figure it out,” Reynolds said.

Meanwhile, dozens of blindsided laid-off workers filed their unemployment paperwork as they tried to piece together next steps.

“I’m putting my house on the market this morning,” a man in a baseball cap said in passing. “I’m done here.”

Workforce Center Manager Rick Mansheim said that they first got wind of the layoffs Monday afternoon around 3:30 p.m. when a woman came in to file for unemployment.

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“That was the first we heard of it,” he said. “We were totally caught off-guard and just jumped in with both feet.”

They stayed late after work Monday to put together rapid response packets for the crowds they knew they’d be seeing first thing in the morning. Along with two information sessions for laid-off workers, they’ll also be extending their business hours this week and next.

Two information sessions will be held 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 3, and again, the following Monday morning July 8 at 9 a.m., and both will be held at the Gillette College at 300 W. Sinclair Street. They will also be hosting a job fair on Wednesday, July 10, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Gillette College Tech Center.

Hours this week will be extended from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (except July 4 when office is closed for holiday) and the following week, July 8 – 12, the center will be open from 7 a.m to 7 p.m.

They’re also planning to host workforce training session as well in the near future, which according to Mansheim are still in the works. He’s expecting to see lots of traffic in the next few days and said the state is prepared, and the resources are there to support laid-off workers.

According to the Wyoming Mining Association, in 2018 Belle Ayr Mine employed 263 people and produced 18,467,405 tons of coal while Eagle Butte Mine had 313 employees and produced 17,055,796 tons of coal.

Employees can also sign up at wyomingatwork.com for job referrals and other services.

“This is an awful thing to see,” he said, “but we’ll help them through it.”

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For questions or more information, visit www.wyomingworkforce.org or call (307) 682-9313.