A steady drizzle fell over the United Mine Workers union hall in Nemacolin Thursday morning as unemployed miners streamed into the two-story building next to the post office to pick up boxes of food and supplies.
The union mobilized in recent months, at first offering gift cards to grocery stores and then opening a monthly food bank at the union hall as they try to help the miners whose unemployment benefits ran out.
Nearly nine months after Alpha Natural Resources closed its Emerald Mine near Waynesburg, costing 235 miners their jobs, the harsh economic reality has set in for many of the company’s former workers still in shock over the loss of their livelihoods.
The closure of Emerald Mine shouldn’t have come as a surprise since Alpha announced more than a year earlier it planned to shutter the operation. Still, many of the miners believed it would continue to operate for a few more months or, if it did close, eventually reopen one day. All were told they would be transferred to Alpha’s sister operation Cumberland Mine through “panel rights” that give union members the first chance to fill vacancies.
“We were hoping that we’d be picked up by Cumberland,” said Dave Baer, who worked as a motorman before the layoff. “We were told everyone would have a job there. They just didn’t tell you when it would be. There are people still waiting by the phone.”
But more than half of the miners who lost their jobs following the closure in November are still unemployed. Many of the ones who were successful in finding employment are paid less than half of the good-paying union wages they enjoyed working in the mines. Others retired earlier than they expected and taken their pension.
Greene County Commissioner Blair Zimmerman, who was a miner for 40 years and spent time at Cumberland Mine, said some of the workers are still having trouble letting go of mining after experiencing earlier down cycles followed by booming times.
“People have that mentality – and they’ve lived it – that layoffs are temporary,” Zimmerman said. “But times have changed. It’s not the same world.
“Reality is punching us in the face.”
Reality sets in
Alpha sent out its “WARN Act” notice, as required by federal law before massive layoffs, on Sept. 25, 2015, notifying workers the operation would close in 90 days. The closure date was originally scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, but Alpha fast-tracked it by two weeks, shutting down the facility Friday, Nov. 13.
Four days later, Barbara Cole, office manager for CareerLink in Waynesburg, and her team held a “rapid response” meeting at Greene County Fairgrounds to walk the miners through the unemployment process. Cole was pleased when nearly every laid-off miner attended.
The session explained how the miners could apply for unemployment benefits, secure their union’s “panel rights” to be called back to Cumberland Mine or find job training opportunities from various agencies and schools.
“It went fairly well, but I think the folks were in shock,” Cole said. “Some were very aggressive about what they needed to do. They got very serious very quickly. Others weren’t because they didn’t believe it was real.”
The following month, another session was held at the UMW’s training center in Ruff Creek to inform the unemployed about the various grant programs available that would pay for laid-off miners to attend classes or training. A little more than 70 miners attended that meeting, Cole said. Additional workshops at CareerLink’s office in Waynesburg have been sparsely attended, she said.
“They don’t avail themselves to a lot of it. We’ve just never been successful at that,” Cole said. “We get four or five (for a workshop) and it’s a good job. I don’t know why Greene County won’t participate.”
Southwest Training Services is offering up to $8,000 per person in federal funding administered through CareerLink for the miners to attend classes. The UMW is also matching that figure with a $7,000 stipend, bringing the total amount of scholarship money to $15,000. Chevron also pledged $100,000 to help with training.
About 80 former miners attended training schools, with many receiving their commercial driver’s license, although a glut in the number of truck drivers coming onto the market during a downturn in the natural gas drilling industry is hurting those job opportunities.
But many waited too long to take advantage of the training options, Cole said, showing interest in the training programs just before their 26 weeks of unemployment compensation expired in mid-May. Cole said the prevailing thought was their layoffs would fall under the federal Trade Readjustment Act designed to extend benefits up to 108 weeks for workers who suffers a job loss to foreign imports. The problem, however, was that Emerald was actually exporting its coal overseas, Cole said.
“They were hedging all of their bets on getting extensions,” Cole said. “They thought there would be an exception for this area. That did not happen.”
Training opportunities available
In early April, as unemployment benefits were about to run out, CareerLink reached out to Baer, 46, the miner who lost his job that November day after working 17 years in the industry, and hired him as a peer counselor.
“We needed someone who could relate to these guys. Someone they could trust,” Cole said. “I know he’s on the phone all day every day about job openings. He’s upfront with them that they got to work. Any job is better than no job.”
Baer, of Crucible, delivers straight talk to his UMW brothers with his dry sense of humor and no-nonsense style.
“A lot of guys wouldn’t talk to anyone else except me,” Baer said. “I’m just like them. I’m a coal miner, just like them. The guys are saying now they didn’t know how good they had it (working in the mines).”
Baer’s new position as a peer counselor pays “nowhere close” to what he was making before in the mine. Still, even half the salary “helps pay the bills,” Baer said, which is the message he’s sending to other miners who turned down jobs that paid only $15 per hour because it was a pittance compared to the $32 an hour the average union wages netted.
“Now that their unemployment is running out, they come in asking for that job,” Baer said. “That job was (filled) three months ago. A $15 job doesn’t stick around long around here.”
Bill Meyers, 62, of Richeyville, worked in the mines for 37 years before Emerald closed. He retired and decided to take his pension, but he’s not staying out of the workforce long as he plans to move to North Carolina with his family to perform HVAC work. Still, he’s unsure about his future and whether the pension he worked for will be around much longer.
“It’s no hidden thing that we made good money,” Meyers said while helping at the food bank Thursday. “Our (union) forefathers fought for that.”
An uncertain future
Ami Gatts, president of Washington-Greene County Job Training Agency, said the loss of good-paying jobs has been a tough pill to swallow for many of the unemployed. The unemployment rate in Greene County for June increased to 7.8 percent, more than three percentage points higher than the statewide average.
“This is really comparable to the steel mills when they stopped,” Gatts said. “It’s just like when they went down.”
She said her agency is urging the workers to take advantage of the training opportunities available, although that’s an even tougher sell when a paycheck isn’t coming in. There are now plans to offer a $20 per day stipend to the miners who are going through training to offer additional assistance.
“What we’ve really found is they’re a little reluctant to go into the longer training because they don’t have any income,” Gatts said.
Baer is trying to change that mentality through new training or job opportunities. He has been in communication with an employer from Newport News, Va., that is looking for trained welders and willing to pay $29 an hour. But that involves relocating, a harsh reality as coal mining dwindles throughout the country, but especially in Greene County.
“If they’re sitting on their (butt) that’s not helping us out,” Baer said. “I’ve got money for them to get training. Maybe that will help them get a job.”
With the coal industry struggling, Zimmerman, the county commissioner and former coal miner, thinks the county needs to diversify itself economically while focusing on retraining miners who are looking for a fresh start.
“Coal doesn’t regenerate itself. In some capacity, the coal industry will be here, but we need to find other options when it comes to business and industry,” Zimmerman said.
“We should’ve been looking for other ways to diversify ourselves.”
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Editor’s note: Look in Monday’s edition for the second installment in the series about whether coal mining still has a future in Greene County.