GILLETTE — On Monday afternoon, two of the nation’s largest coal mines suddenly closed after their owner filed for bankruptcy. Within a half hour, the first miner arrived at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ office here to apply for unemployment benefits. As of Tuesday morning, about 160 workers had come through the door in search of help, the agency estimated.
There may be many more. After the shutdowns at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines, hundreds of workers were without jobs.
“Anytime you have these kind of layoffs, it has a huge impact on the community as a whole,” Workforce Service Department Manager Rick Mansheim said. “But Gillette has been through it before, and we will get through it again.”
In the aftermath of Monday’s closures, a blanket of uncertainty cloaked the city of Gillette.
The mines’ owner, Blackjewel LLC, asked a federal bankruptcy judge to allow a financing plan that the company said would help it avoid a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. That, the company said in a court filling, would result in the liquidation of its assets and the loss of jobs for its workers.
Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops told the Star-Tribune the two mines had roughly 700 combined workers.
Will Bruns, 25, was one. He came to the center Tuesday morning with his wife seeking unemployment benefits and food assistance.
He worked as a truck driver for Blackjewel but had been on shortterm disability leave since February. This summer, he had planned to return to the mine and assume a new job as a blade cutter.
But on Monday afternoon, his wife, 25-year-old Meladie Kelly, came home from her job at Dollar Tree with unexpected news: The mines were closed and Bruns was out of work.
Upon hearing the news, “I broke down,” Bruns said.
He never received any official notice or call from Blackjewel, according to his account.
This was not the first time the Gillette native had wrestled with the shock of unemployment. He used to be a contractor with Black Thunder mine before layoffs at the Powder River Basin’s two largest mines in 2016.
“Our families are both in the coal mines,” Bruns said.
“I mean, like everybody in my family works in coal mines,” Kelly added. “But there hasn’t really been anything massive like this.”
In Bruns’ mind, it might be time to break the family’s lineage and take a different path.
“I kind of hope that they get the mine reopened,” he said, “but I think a lot people are going to move on, move forward.”
Alisha Walker left her job at Belle Ayr mine with the dream of being an emergency medical technician at the nearby hospital. She longed to do work that made her happy.
At her new job, Walker earned $12 less an hour, but she reassured herself that her husband had job security. He worked at Belle Ayr. They would be safe, she thought.
But earlier this year, concerning patterns started emerging at the mine.
Paychecks usually deposited on Fridays were withheld from several workers, according to Walker. And six weeks ago, Blackjewel stopped contributing to the couple’s 401(k) plan and health savings account, she said.
Two other workers described similar experiences.
“We figured it out by calling (the retirement company) and them telling us that there have been no contributions,” Walker said.
The couple recently bought a house in Gillette’s Red Hills neighborhood with what Walker called “hefty mortgage payments.”
To keep up with both mortgage payments and monthly bills, Walker and her husband attempted without success to withdraw money from their retirement plan the day after the mines closed.
“There is a freeze on it. We can’t even cash it out to help with mortgage payment or bills. (Blackjewel CEO) Jeff Hoops, he needs to sign off on it and he hasn’t,” she said. “I’m freaking out.”
Hoops could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Grant and Rhea Parsons sat close to one another just outside the county commissioners’ chambers Tuesday afternoon at the Campbell County Courthouse. The couple came to attend a public meeting called by Gov. Mark Gordon in the wake of Monday’s developments.
“It was probably the biggest smack in the face a person could possibly get,” Parsons said of the closures.
The meeting offered more signs of the uncertainty weighing on workers.
County Commissioner D.G. Reardon asked whether the state was classifying miners as “unemployed” if they had not been officially laid off by Blackjewel and instead were told to go home.
“We asked them all to apply for unemployment,” a Work Service Center representative answered. “The gates are locked; we feel that we should allow them to file.”
Parsons usually has Mondays off, so he wasn’t working when miners were sent home. But a few hours earlier, he had decided to go into work to pick up his paycheck, which Blackjewel had not distributed on Friday.
“I grabbed my check and left. Obviously, if I had known (about the closures), I would have grabbed all my stuff,” he said. “Now I have to sit without my boots.”
With tears in her eyes, Rhea Parsons said while the news had been difficult, “the flood of support” from family and friends was “overwhelming.”
“It happened all evening, people reaching out to provide support,” she said. “It’s a great community and a great state.”