Lawmakers Worry About Overreach With Bills To Help Retrieve Wages

Feb 17, 2020

Blackjewel LLC Operations
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The House Minerals, Business, and Economic Development Committee advanced one of two bills looking to help out-of-work coal miners receive unpaid wages.

After Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy in July, about 500 miners were put out of work without knowing if they were fired, furloughed, or on temporary leave. Many also came to realize the company's checks weren't clearing, yet only 35 of 506 out-of-work miners filed a claim for unpaid wages.

The Select Committee on Coal/Mineral Bankruptcies entered the 2020 Budget Session with two bills to help miners recoup what they're owed. HB 131 and HB 132 looks to give the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services new authority to deal with that problem.

Kelly Roseberry, program manager of Wyoming Workforce Services, explained the bills include the ability to take up claims on behalf of individuals, to gather employer data, consolidate claims into one action, and protect employees against retaliation. This would not only apply to the coal industry.

Roseberry said, while employers are required to maintain employee records, they often don't provide them to her department in wage claim situations. These two bills could help change that.

"In that instance, Labor Standards only has the information provided by the employee to determine the validity of the wage claim. This will allow Labor Standards to validate whether those claims are real by giving them some kind of document inspection power or subpoena power," she said.

The bills were modeled after Kentucky legislation- a state that was also affected by the Blackjewel bankruptcy. Roseberry said Kentucky was able to get all the information it needed related to employees. Gillette Rep. Scott Clem said their model could help Wyoming.

"You had a period of several weeks where [these] employees were not getting paid, this wasn't a tool in our toolbox, and while employees say, in Kentucky... their cases were being handled, ours sat stagnant," said Clem.

Several committee members raised concerns that the bills could be over-reaching and should be limited to bankruptcy situations. Chairman Mike Greear said, as an employer, he already deals with frivolous claims and worries this could exacerbate the situation.

"We are turning the state into a collection agency. And the state then has the ability to create a de facto class action and that is not limited to situations of bankruptcy," he said.

Casper Rep. Joe MacGuire agreed, saying the bills feel like a knee-jerk reaction.

"I think we would be jumping wholesale into something that is very well-litigated and established. I would hate to have unintended consequences when we're trying to do something to help," he said.

HB 132 was advanced with a plan to incorporate the other into it. Chairman Mike Greear said it would be beneficial to advance the bill as is then deal with it on the floor where Rawlins Rep. Donald Burkhart said it would need major amendments.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.