BRISTOL — After Southwest Virginia miners found themselves out of work with bounced paychecks, state officials are starting to mobilize resources to help those impacted by coal company Blackjewel LLC’s bankruptcy.
Gov. Ralph Northam said he’s “deeply concerned” about the impact the company’s woes are having on more than 450 Virginians.
“I have directed my administration to provide additional resources and support for displaced employees, and my team continues to closely monitor the situation. We stand ready to assist in any way possible,” Northam said in a news release.
The Virginia Employment Commission will waive the standard weeklong waiting period for unemployment benefits for affected employees, the release states. Overtime pay for Virginia Career Works representatives, who can help connect Blackjewel employees with job training and career opportunities, was also authorized.
The VEC is sending a rapid response team next week to Norton, St. Charles and Richlands. A team of local workforce development partners will meet with miners and provide information on ways to maintain an income and details on health insurance options, skills and training resources, signing up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and more.
Blackjewel was the country’s sixth-largest coal producer in 2017, according to the federal government’s most recently released annual coal report, and the company said in court filings that it has about 1,700 employees across Kentucky, Virginia, Wyoming and West Virginia.
The company listed 10 facilities in Virginia in its bankruptcy filing, and state data from last year counted 484 employed by Blackjewel and its associated companies in Virginia.
On July 1, the West Virginia-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows it to restructure its debts while continuing to operate. In an affidavit, former CEO Jeff Hoops noted “adverse market conditions” and liquidity issues.
As the company’s case started in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, confusion began to spread among employees as work halted at mining facilities and the company was unable to pay workers. Several employees said their most recent paycheck from the end of June bounced, and the amounts were “clawed back” from their accounts, leaving many with negative balances.
The court later approved $5 million in emergency financing, the terms of which restrict the loan for security measures, “essential firefighting personnel,” “professional fees” and “other essential emergency expenses.”
The company said in a statement Wednesday that part of that money “has allowed the company to bring back the first wave of employees who are crucial to ensuring the safety of its mines and equipment while it works towards a longer-term solution.”
The statement said 140 employees have returned to work across Blackjewel’s operations, but the company hasn’t specified how many are in Virginia.
The company has said employees who return will be paid for time worked prior to the bankruptcy filing.
“The company’s ability to bring more employees back to work is contingent upon its ability to secure additional financing, which remains the top priority for the management team,” the release states.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement that it’s “outrageous that Blackjewel has yanked back so many paychecks .”
“These miners deserve the wages they earned and the company should also take care of any negative consequences like overdrafts or late fees. I will use any tool or legal resource at my disposal to make sure these folks get paid.”
Michael Kelly, Herring’s director of communications, said that Herring’s office has been in touch with Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear to share resources and information.
Blackjewel is also facing a class-action lawsuit by a Wyoming employee accusing the company of violating the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act by failing to provide workers a 60-day notice of a mass layoff. That lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court in West Virginia.