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Hundreds Of Virginia Mine Workers Go Weeks Without Pay Following Unexpected Blackjewel Bankruptcy

Photos from Blackjewel Osaka mine in Appalachia, Virginia
Left, a sign at a Blackjewel mine in Appalachia, Va. Right, The "big ol coal chute" at Blackjewel's Osaka mine in Appalachia, Va.

Hundreds of Virginia mine workers were surprised to learn earlier this month that they would be out of work. West Virginia-based mining company Blackjewel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1, giving virtually no notice to its employees.

Many of those employees have gone weeks without pay, some having their paychecks “clawed back” after having already been deposited into their bank accounts. 

Whittney Evans spoke to Sarah Vogelsong -- an environment and energy reporter for the Virginia Mercury who’s been covering this story. 

Transcript:

Whittney Evans: Sarah Vogelsong, what can you tell us about the circumstances surrounding Blackjewel’s unexpected bankruptcy filing?

Sarah Vogelsong: I think there are two things that set this bankruptcy apart from most of the other bankruptcies of mining companies that we’ve seen in recent years. The first is the extent to which this has not gone the way it’s supposed to go. It’s not unusual for mining companies to file for bankruptcy, but usually what they do is they file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy which lets them reorganize and restructure their debts. They keep on operating at the same time. For the workers on the ground, it usually doesn’t make much of a difference. In this case, Blackjewel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but the court refused to let it move ahead with its post-filing financing. So where it is right now is that if Blackjewel doesn’t get the financing that’s acceptable to the court it’s going to be forced into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would eventually lead it probably to liquidate its assets and have the mines shut down. 

Evans: Do you have any sense of why the court made this decision?

Vogelsong: The takeaways that I’ve been seeing from people is that either they feel like maybe there was some kind of malfeasance in the management or possibly just that it has been so wildly mismanaged that letting it go forward under its current structure was not a good idea. 

Evans: How have employees been affected by all this?

Vogelsong: Pretty much as you would expect if you had stopped getting paid and had several thousand dollars taken out of your bank account. Some of the people out there told me they had started selling off their possessions. Some people were looking to relatives or very close friends for help, but the difficulty with that is that there were about 480 workers who were laid off. Everybody they knew was being affected by this. And until the state took action last week, they hadn’t been able to file for unemployment, because technically, they hadn’t been laid off. A lot of these people just felt forgotten. 

Evans: How did the state take action?

Vogelsong: They eased the path for workers to file for unemployment. They’ve also at this point convened some rapid response teams that are working down in the area to help connect the workers with services, to help them look for other job opportunities or retraining if that’s what they’re interested in. 

Evans: And how has the company responded to all of this?

Vogelsong: The company has not responded a lot. There was after the bankruptcy filing a website that they set up that occasionally they have put up an update on it. Maybe every couple of days or once a week. But when I was down in the area talking to people, they uniformly said we are getting all of our information on social media. 

Evans: Do you have any sense of whether they have a plan to get employees back to work?

Vogelsong: At this point this is still working its way through the courts. What Blackjewel has said is that they need more financing. And so far, as of the last status update they filed with the bankruptcy court, they do not have their financing in place. So essentially there is no plan to get these workers back to work.

Updated 11:05 a.m.