Coal Workers Waiting On Paychecks After Company Declares Bankruptcy
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A major coal company, Blackjewel, declared bankruptcy five weeks ago, and miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are still waiting for their paychecks. A hearing tomorrow could determine whether and when they'll get paid. Brittany Patterson of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.
BRITTANY PATTERSON, BYLINE: Coal miner Shane Smith is standing on railroad tracks in Harlan County, Ky. It's not a place the 29-year-old father of six thought he would be. He'd much rather be at work at the D-21 coal mine. But Smith hasn't been to work since his employer, Blackjewel, declared bankruptcy on July 1. And he hasn't gotten his last paycheck, worth about $2,000.
SHANE SMITH: I want to put food on my table for my children. I want my job back.
PATTERSON: Last week, dozens of out-of-work Blackjewel miners gained national attention when they began blocking delivery of a train-load of coal from one of Blackjewel's mines. Their mission is simple.
SMITH: We want our money, and we want it now. If they can load a train out, they can give us our money.
PATTERSON: As part of the bankruptcy process, the company last week started taking bids for its mines and equipment. On Monday, a federal bankruptcy judge will decide whether to approve the bids. And that could determine if miners will be paid, says West Virginia Attorney Sam Petsonk, who is representing miners from Blackjewel's eastern division.
SAM PETSONK: The bankruptcy court finds itself in a very difficult position.
PATTERSON: Speaking over Skype, he says employee wage claims are a high priority in the eyes of the bankruptcy court but not the highest priority. There is a fear the sale of the company's assets won't bring in enough money.
PETSONK: All of the creditors, including our clients, need to see the most value derived from these operations as possible.
PATTERSON: Blackjewel owes more than $11 million to its eastern employees and $1.5 million to workers at its two Wyoming mines. That's in addition to tens of millions of dollars the company owes in taxes, royalties and other debts. Petsonk says Blackjewel's bankruptcy shows legal reforms are needed.
PETSONK: Our federal law, when it comes to bankruptcy, does not protect the wages of workers in exactly the situation that the Blackjewel workers have found themselves.
PATTERSON: Kentucky does have a law on its books that require some businesses, including coal operators, to put up a bond assuring wages will be paid in the case of bankruptcy. The law is administered by the state's labor Cabinet, but Blackjewel didn't comply. Kentucky Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear says his office has opened an investigation. On Friday, he called on Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin to fire the head of the state's labor Cabinet.
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ANDY BESHEAR: If he had required that the law been followed, there would have been a bond that could have paid the wages of the Harlan miners from the Blackjewel site.
PATTERSON: West Virginia repealed a similar wage protection law a few years ago. In an update issued on July 30, the company said it was doing everything possible to get its employees paid. For NPR News, I'm Brittany Patterson Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.