GILLETTE — Nearly 600 workers at Blackjewel LLC’s coal mines in Campbell County are suddenly out of work after the company abruptly closed its Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines Monday afternoon.
The move came just hours after the company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in West Virginia. But motions that included asking for emergency financial relief to keep mines at Blackjewel’s 32 operations in Wyoming and the eastern United States either were denied or not acted upon.
Online court filings as of Monday evening did not include dispositions for Monday's first-day bankruptcy hearing.
That hearing had been scheduled for noon Mountain Standard Time and by 2:30, employees working at the mines had been recalled. Local management informed them there was no more money to operate and that they could collect their tools and leave.
“We’re loading our toolboxes and everything right now,” said an Eagle Butte mine worker who asked to not be identified.
“They pulled us into another meeting and (a manager) came in and told us, ‘We don’t have the money. The bankruptcy didn’t go as planned as we couldn’t pay you guys.'”
He said workers were told that if the company were to secure emergency funding or credit to ramp up operations again, they could be called back. But he also said he’s not holding his breath as they also were informed that as soon as everyone had left, power to the mines would be cut off.
The manager “was pretty emotional and upset and you could see the sympathy in his heart,” he said about the afternoon bombshell. He also said nobody has any ill feelings toward local mine management.
“He was pretty teary-eyed,” he said. “Management had nothing to do with any of this. This is (company President and CEO) Jeff Hoops. These guys are like family and friends out here. They’ve been together out here for five, 10, 15 years or more.”
Another Blackjewel employee who worked night shifts at the Belle Ayr mine said he got a call about 3 p.m. Monday telling him not to report for work.
“I got a call from my boss and he told me not to come in tonight,” he said. The mine worker also asked not to be identified.
He called the early news of bankruptcy then closing the mines hours later “a double whammy” and “a huge slap in the face.”
He said instead of getting ready for work Monday afternoon, he spent the time calling his creditors in an effort to try and stay afloat financially if the shutdown is prolonged or permanent.
“This doesn’t just hurt our employees, it hurts our community, and it hurts bad,” he said.
The shutdown follows a turbulent four-day stretch for Blackjewel LLC in Wyoming that started with employees not getting paid as usual on Friday.
The mines lost production on Friday and Saturday because most of the mine workers left because they hadn’t been paid, both miners said.
They said that while employees were paid Sunday with cashier’s checks, there have been other signs of financial instability.
They said the company has not deposited at least four employee contributions to their 401K retirement accounts and at least three payments into their health savings accounts.
“That’s money from our own paychecks, not their contributions,” the Eagle Butte miner said.
The Belle Ayr worker said those missing payments and then Friday’s missed paycheck were enough to make him wary.
“As soon as we missed (the paycheck), I updated my resume and started looking,” he said. “I’m looking at other mining jobs around the country. I’ve got to.”
Campbell County officials spent Monday afternoon talking with the state and the local office of the Department of Workforce Services since learning of the mines closing.
“We’re really concerned,” said Commission Chairman Rusty Bell. “We’ve been on the phone four times in the last 15 minutes with Workforce Services to make sure we get (the affected workers) any services they need.”
He said the county has been through booms and busts before and “we know how hard it is.”