Agency says coal workers need more bankruptcy protection

CHEYENNE — According to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, coal workers in Wyoming need more protections when it comes to bankruptcy filings in the industry.

Representatives from the department presented their “wish list” of changes Monday to the Legislature’s Select Committee on Coal/Mineral Bankruptcies, which was formed in September after a string of coal bankruptcies in the state shook Wyoming workers.

After hearing reasoning from Kelly Roseberry, a lawyer with Workforce Services, the committee directed the Legislative Service Office to draft three bills, including an anti-retaliation provision, a statute allowing for class investigations in bankruptcy cases and the ability to pursue unpaid wages through legal action.

Two of these issues came to light when Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, leaving more than 500 employees in Campbell County with unpaid wages and benefits.

Right now in Wyoming, there is no anti-retaliation provision for workers who file a claim for unpaid wages. If a company learns one of its employees is participating in a claim to the Department of Workforce Services, that employee can be fired.

Out of 506 affected employees, Roseberry said only 32 filed a claim for their missing wages with the Department of Workforce Services. Those 32 employees altogether were owed $161,000 in back pay, unused vacation time, and benefits like 401(k) plans and health insurance.

During their investigation, Roseberry said they discovered that Blackjewel had been deducting from employees’ paychecks for retirement and health savings plans, but not depositing that money into the employees’ accounts for five pay periods.

While those 32 employees were reimbursed, the committee could only estimate what the other 474 employees are owed, but that estimate was more than $1 million.

“Substantially more money is due,” Roseberry said.

To try to get more Blackjewel employees to claim their wages, the department sent representatives to Gillette, posted on social media and asked employees who filed claims to reach out to their coworkers.

In that bankruptcy, workers were sent home and spent months wondering when they might be called back to work. Roseberry said those employees didn’t file claims because they were afraid of retaliation from Blackjewel.

“They are afraid they won’t be called back if they file a claim,” Roseberry said.

Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said it was “odd” that Wyoming didn’t already have these types of protections, and the committee ultimately directed the Legislative Service Office to move forward with drafting a bill to address this issue.

Another problem the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services ran into with the Blackjewel bankruptcy was the inability to file a class investigation. Roseberry said for this reason, the department could only help the 32 workers who filed individual claims, instead of bringing all the affected workers in under one investigation.

The department recommended that the committee try to change the statute and broaden its powers to align with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is allowed to pursue class investigations. With the change, the department would have been able to include all the Blackjewel employees who are owed wages.

“The ability to do a class investigation will really help the relationship to individuals being able to consider coming forward,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

The Legislative Service Office will draft a bill about class investigations, but it will only apply to bankruptcy cases.

The last bill that will be drafted has to do with jurisdiction over these types of legal cases. If the Labor Standards Division decides that wages are owed and the employer fails to pay, the division enlists county attorneys to help collect unpaid wages.

Roseberry said each county attorney goes about this differently, which is where the problem lies.

According to Roseberry, when a case came up in Laramie County, the circuit court told the county attorney that it doesn’t have the authority to hear the claim for unpaid wages. Unfortunately, the district court also claimed it has no jurisdiction in these cases.

Roseberry said when she sends a claim to the Laramie County attorney, their hands are basically tied.

“He can send a letter to the employer that says, ‘You’d better pay or else,’ but there is no ‘or else,’” Roseberry said. “That is literally the extent of his authority to do anything.”

The committee will discuss the drafts of these three bills at its next meeting, but with the future of coal in question, Roseberry made it clear that changes are required to protect Wyoming coal workers.