With Jobs In Limbo, Blackjewel Workers Stay Busy

Jul 12, 2019

More than a week has passed since Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy and sent home 576 workers. They're still waiting to hear if they're laid off or heading back to work soon. Employees are stuck in limbo, but many are not struggling to keep busy.

The Face

Rory Wallett walks into the Campbell County Library and asks for a key to a conference room. The tattooed and bearded Blackjewel worker is helping set up a meeting with his co-workers. Since he was sent home July 1st, Wallett has traded in his old full-time job for a new one… kind of. He's setting up a support network for Blackjewel workers.

Wallett speaking to a small group at the county library
Credit Cooper McKim

"I've been busy 24/7," he said.

Wallett has become the face of Wyoming's Blackjewel employees. It all started when he opened up a Facebook group: "Blackjewel Employees Stand Together."

"I just figured the page would throw some information together, put some job openings on there. I never imagined it to grow like it has," Wallet said.

Now, Wallett's days are packed. Just today, he's sending people groceries, collecting funds for various fundraises and even working to support Blackjewel employees in Appalachia who are also out of work. One family couldn’t afford their son's medicine.

"His chemo meds were running out and the insurance dropped back east so we just put it on our credit or debit card," Wallett said. "It was no big deal."

But Wallett has four kids and a lot to worry about himself. Helping people is helping him cope with the stress.

"It's great that we're focusing on the positives that we're not sitting there and just sitting at home getting drunk talking [former Blackjewel CEO Jeff] Hoops down. Let's just let’s pay it forward however we can and keep it going… we're a big family," Wallett said.

Wallett is only the the tip of the iceberg. In just a week, the whole city of Gillette has started to buzz. This is a weekday when all 600 of Blackjewel's employees would otherwise be at work, yet they're busy tackling another jobs: forming prayer circles all over the city, responding to facebook requests for grocery and bill help, handing out petitions, and planning fundraisers, like three woman working at a kitchen table in a white ranch home outside of Gillette.

Nicole (left), Michelle Young (middle), and Kelly Coulter (right) planning for a fundraiser
Credit Cooper McKim

The Fundraiser

Kelly Coulter is one of them. She works at an organization called Thrivent Financial and is using her skills to raise money and help families feel comfortable in this time of limbo.

"The anticipation of not knowing what to expect, that's the thing that's really eating people up," Coulter said. "If they knew, 'Okay, this is going to go on for this amount of time or here's what’s coming in the future,' but it's terrifying."

Former Eagle Butte worker Michelle Young sits at her kitchen table with Coulter. She said groceries and medicine isn’t all that's needed either.

"Certainly these guys work 25, 30 years at the mine, they don't know anything else. Like that's their life, that's what they know. And so they don't even know how to fill out a resume, get online fill out applications. I'm like, come to my house. I have a printer," she said.

The Fundraiser's Flyer
Credit Michelle Young

The Community Lay-off Fundraiser, as it's called, includes a jump house and slide, silent auction, and music. It takes place July 11 at Dalby Memorial Park in Gillette.

The Information Session

Over at Gillette College, several local and state agenciesare presenting available resources to about 40 Blackjewel employees.  

"I want to welcome you all to our informational session," announced Rick Mansheim, manager at the Gillette Workforce Center. He introduces representatives to talk about unemployment checks, insurance options, and upcoming job fairs.

Later, Mansheim said the center has been jam-packed since July 1. He's now averaging about 70 people a day, but said many Blackjewel folks have already found new jobs. According to the company's human resources manager, 20 to 30 percent of employees have found new work.

"Most places are underemployed and looking for employees. If there's a bright side to this, it's that timing was in a situation where people are looking for employees,' Mansheim said.

Even Blackjewel was looking to hire people before they went bankrupt.

Information session held in the atrium of Gillette College
Credit Cooper McKim

The Evening

The sun starts to go down as a buzzing Gillette settles for the night. It's breezy and warm outside Rory Wallett's house. Friends of his, Shawn and Tandie, are over; they didn’t want to include last names. The recently married couple are both equipment operators for Blackjewel on the same crew. Bills are coming due and their last paychecks didn't cash— so they're feeling pretty desperate.

"I was getting ready to go visit my son, we're on our way. I look at my bank account. I’m upside down," Shawn said. "I've never had a negative bank account."

The couple have cancelled their monthly payments like Netflix and cable. Now, they can't pay to even get their car out of a mechanic. Friends have been helping, but it's been stressful.

"He can only mow the lawn so many times in one week,' Tandie said. "You know, there's not much we can do sitting at home."

Luckily, Shawn's old employer is giving him his job back. Tandie’s trying to find families' houses to clean. Wallett shoves a wad of cash in Shawn's pocket before they head home.

The Family

Rory and Brandy with their kids (in order): Spenser, Ashlynn, Rachel, and Patrick
Credit Cooper McKim

Wallett's wife, Brandy, said she’s feeling the pressure, too.

"My job relies on tips. I am the sole person making money right now," she said. "It was a little daunting."

Wallett made a joke that once he goes back to work he can relax. Brandy said he’s constantly on his phone now, responding to messages and requests for help.

"On the Fourth of July, I threatened to throw his phone in the trash because we're waiting for the parade," she said.

Wallet's four kids join their parents outside, crowding around them avoiding branches. They seem to like having Mr. Mom around—as Wallett has dubbed himself.

"He's my favorite," 14-year-old Rachel said.

But his youngest, Ashlyn hopes her dad doesn't stick around too long.

"I want him to go back to work."

Wallett, Shawn, Tandie and the many others hold out hope they can return from thisjob to their old one sooner rather than later.