Furloughed Miners Struggle To Find Work Despite Strong Market

Sep 6, 2019

On a bright morning outside Gillette, Darlene Rea is getting ready to job search. She might visit Sheridan this afternoon. Until two months ago, Rea worked in Blackjewel's warehouse - receiving freight, writing invoices and finding parts. But since the coal company's abrupt bankruptcy, she's been stuck looking for work.

"Every day, every day, every day, you keep waiting and wondering if somebody is going to call you up. And then there's nothing," she says.

Rea slaps down a sheet of paper listing all the places she's applied for jobs.

"Peabody Energy, Cloud Peak, Campbell County Hospital, Walmart, Pegasus," she lists off.

Next to many is the word rejection.

Darlene Rea's three dogs in her yard.
Credit Cooper McKim

Rea has a medically retired husband and a mortgage. Worse comes to worst, she'll have to sell the house and move; a tough option with grandkids nearby. She's struggling despite what she's hearing—that the job market in Gillette is strong. The local workforce center says companies are underemployed unlike the downturn in 2015 and 2016. Even Blackjewel had openings until its bankruptcy July 1.

That day, when the company went under, it furloughed about 600 employees. Two months later, only a quarter of those workers are back to work plus a small skeleton crew, according to local management. With a strong job market, Rea has an idea why people like herself are struggling to find work. It's about job skills.

"If you know how to drive a haul truck and run a shovel… an electrician, mechanic a welder. Yeah, the mines are picking you up left and right," Rea says.

Rick Mansheim, supervisor with the Gillette Workforce Center, agreed. Mines are looking for skilled positions, but he said that's not the only reason so many locals aren't back to work. Most of those reasons don't have to do with the job market itself.

"I think most of them are just waiting to see what happens," says Mansheim. In other words, hoping to get their old job back.

At the start of Blackjewel's bankruptcy, warehouse worker Melissa Peterson-Worden fell into that category. We're talking in her 'office' as she calls it. It's a restaurant in downtown Gillette.

"The one thing I've always heard is a mine will never close a mine. And in one day, they closed two," Peterson-Worden says.

Still, she was sure the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines would re-open and wanted to wait.

Melissa Peterson-Worden at a restaurant in downtown Gillette - she's been able to use it as her office
Credit Cooper McKim

"I wanted to be a part of that group that brought the mines back and came up from this unheard-of thing we've just gone through," says Peterson-Worden.

After all, being a part of that group meant she would get her old back and restore these historic mines. Her plan affected her job search.

"I didn't even make it into the door of the job fair because my heart wasn't in it," she says.

But now, after over two months of the mines staying closed, Peterson-Worden's attitude has shifted. In fact, she would no longer work at Blackjewel. Especially, after hearing the potential buyers Contura did not plan to keep the mines open long-term. But she still wants to get back in her field - that's where her focus is.

"To accept a job that's either not in my field or not [at] the pay rate I want, that would be a temporary job to me," she says. "I still want to be in my field. I still associated with coal mining - there's definitely a standard of living that I would like to maintain."

Gillette Workforce Center's Mansheim said that's another common reason many are still out of work. The urge to continue that specific lifestyle of a miner with good pay and long hours.

Dan Zarecky outside his house.
Credit Cooper McKim

However, Mansheim says those jobs are harder to come by. So, former Blackjewel workers have moved elsewhere: South Carolina, Utah, Nevada, Arizona to name a few. All to find better, higher-paying jobs. Dan Zarecky is moving to Montana for that reason.

"I have had the option, several options, to take a big pay cut and work here in town. But I want to be able to I want that 401(k) I want that pension and whatever comes with it. I feel like my family deserves that," he says.

Zarecky has a family and a baby due in October. They want him to stay in town. He said he would prefer it too. But he said you have to make sacrifices to get what you want.

"It's only two and a half hours away. I'll be able to come here on my days off. And it's... it's worth it," he says.

Workforce Center's Mansheim said the job-seeking traffic has slowed down since the bankruptcy. But a new wave is coming in - people who've waited for Blackjewel to re-open are now ready to move on. He said a furloughed worker came in today and was ready to start the job search.

It's been over two months and, technically, Blackjewel has still not laid anyone off. But in Gillette, it sure feels that way.