Wyoming Coal Workers Settle Over Mine Shutdowns

(CN) — In the last state in the union to confirm COVID-19 diagnoses, a lawyer for laid-off coal miners said their new settlement in West Virginia is welcome succor for his clients as they grapple with the spreading pandemic.

“If you’re an active coal miner, it’s probably a 20% chance you have black lung, and you’re very susceptible to this horrendous virus,” attorney Ned Pillersdorf said Tuesday in a Facebook live video announcing a settlement with Blackjewel LLC of West Virginia.

The entrance to the Blue Ayr Mine south of Gillette, Wyo. The shutdown of Blackjewel’s Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Wyoming since July 1 added more uncertainty to the Powder River Basin’s struggling coal economy. (AP photo/Mead Gruver)

Across the country, the threat of the new coronavirus strain has shuttered businesses and left thousands of workers seeking unemployment benefits.

For employees of the bankrupt Blackjewel, however, financial instability began last summer when then-CEO Jeffrey Hoops abruptly shuttered two Wyoming mines and others in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

Though the mines have since reopened under new management, investigations by Wyoming’s Labor Standards Office show that most Blackjewel workers have not yet received just compensation.

Federal law requires sufficient notice of layoffs or 60 days of wages, and Shawn Abner led a suit on behalf of 1,700 miners against Blackjewel under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

“Defendants refused to allow plaintiffs access to retirement funds or even to file complaints regarding the inaccessibility of those funds,” the complaint states.

Stephen Lerner, an attorney for Blackjewel with the firm Squire Patton Boggs, has not returned a request for comment about the settlement announced via Facebook.

“I unfortunately cannot tell you what the settlement is,” the Kentucky-based Pillersdorf said in the livestream, noting that class members will be notified about it soon. “The settlement is currently judicially sealed.”

It will remain judicially sealed until it garners final approval by a federal judge in Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, he said.

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