The attorney generals of Kentucky and Virginia have written a joint letter to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court demanding that Blackjewel Mining make “immediate payment” of wages owed to workers.
The Letcher County Judge/Executive’s Office has seen a steady stream of Blackjewel coal miners since a public meeting last Wednesday during which miners were told to fill out paperwork there to be passed on to Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear for possible criminal action, to the Kentucky Department of Labor, and to private attorneys for civil suits.
Attorneys are gathering information to take legal action against the company two weeks after it suddenly filed bankruptcy and shut down, leaving miners unemployed and broke. Attorneys from Kentucky and West Virginia as well as state officials from the Department of Labor were at the meeting in Whitesburg to advise miners.
“The failure of Blackjewel to prepare for bankruptcy has created unnecessary chaos for our miners and their families — the uncertainty they have had to face is wrong and it must end,” Beshear said in a statement. “My office is using all our powers to seek answers to the complaints we have received regarding clawed back paychecks, bounced checks and child support issues. Now, we are taking action and urging immediate payment to our miners. No Kentuckian should be treated this way for putting in an honest day’s work.”
Blackjewel pulled second-shift employees out of mines on July 2 and sent them home, and told workers to call back to see if the mines were reopening, but not to come back to work until they were told to.
Miners learned a day later that paychecks they cashed on June 28 were worthless. Now a second payday has come and gone, and some miners say they are having trouble getting unemployment because there are no records proving they worked.
“It is absolutely outrageous that hundreds of Virginia workers are being forced to overdraft their bank accounts and scramble to make ends meet because Blackjewel couldn’t get its act together,” said Virginia Attorney General Herring. “Even more egregious than the missed paychecks are the reports that some employees actually had their wages taken back out after the money had shown up in their accounts. These workers deserve the wages they earned and I’m going to use every tool at my disposal to make sure they get paid. The company should also take care of any negative consequences caused by their recklessness, like overdrafts or late fees.”
Whitesburg coal miner James Stone said he got his paycheck for the first two weeks of June on June 28, paid his bills, and then got a notice from the bank few days later that the paycheck bounced.
“The bank went ahead and paid it, but now I owe the bank $1,800,” Stone said.
Stone said he went to work at Blackjewel’s D11 Panther Mine in Harlan County on July 1, and the superintendent told employees the company had filed bankruptcy, but it was going to remain open and everything would be fine. An hour and a half after he went underground, he said, the miners were told to come back to the surface. That’s when they were told to go home and call the mine office every day to find out if they could come back to work.
“I call them, and they just keep saying call back,” Stone said, adding that the only people who ever answer the phone are security guards.
Dan Mosley is county judge/executive in Harlan County, where Blackjewel, also known as Revelation, owns several mines. Mosley said the fact that the company deducted money from checks for taxes, child support, and retirement and apparently didn’t make payments is the worst thing he’s seen happen in the coal industry.
“I think the attorney general is adequately investigating what as been done,” Mosley said, adding that it has yet to be determined whether criminal charges will be filed, and whether they will be filed in state or federal court.
A former banker, Mosley said Blackjewel will have to answer for the bounced checks.
Joe Childers, a longtime Lexington attorney who is part of a consortium of lawyers working to get miners paid, said he had never seen a situation where employees’ checks bounced after a company was in bankruptcy.
Childers, who has a long history of dealing with coal company issues, said Revelation Coal bought up other mines that were already in trouble, including part of Patriot Coal in West Virginia, and ran them past the point of no return.
“This is like the scavenger at the end doesn’t have anything left to scavenge,” Childers said. “This really could spell the end of the coal industry in eastern Kentucky.”