By Camille Erickson, Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — When the coal operator Blackjewel shuttered the gates of two mines in the Powder River Basin this summer, the insolvent company had already withheld wages and other benefits from its miners, a state office claims.
Even as Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines have reopened under new ownership, a vast majority of former Blackjewel workers have yet to receive the full compensation they were promised, according to recent investigations by Wyoming’s Labor Standards Office.
When it filed for bankruptcy, Blackjewel owed 506 workers hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and benefits. But nearly six months later, only 33 workers have filed a claim for compensation with the state.
The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has finished investigating 31 of those claims and concluded Blackjewel failed to pay the 31 workers nearly $164,000 of owed wages and benefits.
Of that amount, Blackjewel has provided the department with proof of paying workers just $56,800.
“Blackjewel attorneys assert that additional payments have been made but no official supporting documentation has been provided,” the department stated in a letter to Wyoming lawmakers.
The company withheld payments from employees’ health savings and retirement accounts over the course of five pay periods prior to the bankruptcy, according to the investigations. And before filing for Chapter 11, Blackjewel also withdrew employee retirement contributions from workers’ paychecks without transferring the funds to their retirement accounts.
Blackjewel did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The vast majority of former Blackjewel workers — 94 percent — did not take legal action against the company.
Several workers chose not to pursue a claim for a simple reason: fear of retaliation from the company.
“We have heard this from some claimants, that if (the mines) reopen … they are afraid that they won’t be called back if they filed a claim,” Kelly Roseberry, deputy administrator for Labor Standards at Workforce Services, told Wyoming lawmakers Monday.
“They think that they will get paid somehow, someway and they don’t want to stir the pot.”
Wyoming labor statutes do not protect workers who file wage claims from employer retaliation.
Pursuing the 33 workers’ wage claims hasn’t been easy for the Labor Standards Office either.
“The department ran into several hurdles and difficulties when it came to processing these wage claims as a result of the Blackjewel bankruptcy,” Roseberry said Monday.
For instance, the office cannot pursue any unpaid wage claims until a worker has officially “separated from an employer” and is no longer considered a current employee with a company. But Blackjewel’s bankruptcy debacle left workers largely in the dark. Few knew the status of their employment while the mines idled and the company slogged through bankruptcy court.
In addition, the Labor Standards Office has few means to fight on behalf of workers when companies withhold wages or benefits. That’s because only county attorneys can represent workers in unpaid wage claims.
What’s more, district and circuit courts unsure about proper jurisdiction have also had their hands tied, leaving even fewer enforcement measures for the state to lean on. Penalties for frequently violating wage or hour labor laws remain relatively weak in Wyoming, too.
In addition, workers must initiate a wage claim in the state before the Labor Standards Office can pursue an investigation. Although the state agency went to great lengths to reach out to workers it knew were owed wages and benefits, only 6 percent of Blackjewel workers ultimately filed a claim, Roseberry said.
Meanwhile, workers do have some recourse for pursuing unpaid wages on a federal level, though there are limits.
About 500 former Blackjewel employees joined a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming against Blackjewel for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. Submitted in October by the U.S. Department of Labor, the complaint alleged Blackjewel violated labor laws by withholding wages between June 24 and July 1.
In response, Blackjewel agreed to pay $793,847 in outstanding wages to the workers within 90 days of the sale closure to avoid further litigation. But this does not include withheld retirement benefits, health savings account dues or accrued paid time off.
That’s where the claim filed in Wyoming’s Labor Standards Office comes in. It can pursue compensation for outstanding worker benefits.
But for now, no former Blackjewel employee has not been paid back in full, according to Roseberry of the Labor Standards Office.
“There were several benefits that these employees missed out on,” Roseberry said. “… Our determinations have found that substantially more money is due to these workers.”