Laid-off coal miners consider moving out - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Laid-off coal miners consider moving out

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What does a coal miner approaching the 55-year retirement age do when he's laid off?

"My dad works at Consol Energy. He is 51 years old. He's got enough time in to retire but he's not old enough — he's got four years left," said Amanda Moore, economic development coordinator for the Clay County Business Development Authority.

Moore's dad was one of 318 miners who got notice in June that they would be laid off Aug. 30 from Consol's Fola operations in Clay County.

"He's not going to go back to college," Moore said. "He's coal mined his entire life."

What will he do?

"He has no answers for that. It's not like he can go 10 miles down the road and find another manufacturing plant to work at," she said.

What to do next is a problem for miners of any age. At the other end of his mining career, Chase Holcomb, facing lay-off from Fola with a 7-week-old daughter, is dealing with the same question.

Moore and Holcomb are part of a wave of perhaps as many as 2,500 miners laid off across the central and southern part of the state so far this year. Clay County, already with unemployment of 10 percent in July, is hit hard.

The county anticipated $230,000 in coal severance tax revenues in its $2.3 million budget for 2012-13. With the loss of any or all of that, in addition to reduced property taxes from an idled mine, the county will probably have to cut the budget of every elected official, said County Commission President Jerry Linkinoggor.

Schools Superintendent Kenneth Tanner expects to lose one-third of the school system's $600,000 excess levy as well as funding from property tax revenues, forcing cutbacks in activity buses used by students who participate in after-school tutoring, music and athletics, as well as in computer maintenance and even utilities.

Laid-off miners often will commute to mines in adjacent counties. But with significant layoffs also in Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, Raleigh and Webster counties., people start to talk of moving.

Pack up and uproot

Melody Cottrell's husband works at Alpha Natural Resources' Mammoth Mine in Kanawha County, and they're living day to day.

"His hours have changed from 8-hour days to 9-hour days to 10-hour days, and then he might come home and say, ‘I'm off,' or, ‘They've cut us down to 6 hours,'" Cottrell said. "They laid off the whole night shift, so they now have two shifts instead of three. And they swing, so these men do days for two weeks and then evenings for two weeks. So it's not even a consistent shift and they never know what their hours are going to be."

The couple has a child and owes money on a house and cars.

"So yes, we owe everything we have to coal, but the worse it gets, we're not going to be able to maintain our lifestyle unless we move," she said.

Registered nurse Kelly Shamblin said her husband is on the verge of losing his job.

He went straight from high school into his dad's coal trucking business, Shamblin said. When coal went through a down period once, he got certified as an electrician to work underground.

"That's how we've lived. That's where the money was," she said. "He works in Boone County, and there's five of them left — they shut the job down. They've got him working as a security guard on midnight shift just to keep him working," she said. "He came home yesterday and said, as of next Friday, we don't have any eye insurance, we don't have any dental insurance. They dropped it."

As a nurse, Shamblin said, she can get a job in any state or county.

"My husband doesn't have that luxury. It's come into discussion that if we have to pack up and uproot our kids and go, I'll have to work, and he'll have to, you know … ," she trailed off.

"I don't want to raise my children anywhere else."

Coal defines communities

David Scott, owner of David's Barber and Styling, one of a handful of businesses still operating on Main Street in Madison in Boone County, said about 75 percent of his business is coal miners.

The mines, he said, are filled with good, talented people.

"It's something to be proud of," Scott said. "It's hard work and you've got to have some intelligence to be a coal miner. You've got equipment to run and it's not just for some dummy. It's a good profession."

The barbershop conversations in Madison now have an air of uncertainty as a community depending on coal faces a seemingly national opposition to their industry stacked on geological and market challenges.

"A lot of the guys – a whole lot – especially the younger people are afraid, because anymore, there's just not any future in a coal mine," Scott said. "You might have eight, ten years, and that's about it. It's a dying industry. That's what it comes down to really."

Scott said he fears that a lot of the young people in Boone County will have to move out to find good work to support their families.

"It's going to shrink," he said of his hometown of Madison. "It's going to hurt the town in revenue, taxes and everything."

Scott said that many in Boone County are looking for hope elsewhere -- another industry, another town, or another set of skills. Some though, he said, are simply giving up.

"You also have others who, if they can't find a job, they aren't going to do nothing," Scott said. "They're going to live with Mom and Dad and Aunt Jane and Pawpaw."

Like a lot of people in the coalfields, Scott said he is concerned about what four more years of the Obama administration might do to his coal-based community. Scott, however also reiterates a point many who depend on coal find even more threatening.

"We've just used up about all of our coal," Scott said as a few customers shuffled into his shop. "All the good seams are gone."

Losing support network

As Jerry Gould works it out, 300 miners laid off from salaries of $80,000 means $24 million lost to the area in wages that would be spent on meals, clothing, home improvement, trips to ball games.

By the same token, 2,500 miners laid off is a loss of $200 million to the region.

Owner of Clay County-based Gould's Electric Motor Repair, Gould prides himself on never having had to lay anyone off in his 37 years in business. He's challenged now; Fola represents 4 percent of his business, he guesses — a significant fraction of a company with 26 employees.

For his part, Chad Boggs has, with regret, had to lay off drivers in the independent trucking company he started 15 years ago. But it goes way beyond those directly serving the industry.

With salaries double statewide averages, coal miners are often accustomed to certain lifestyles. The uncertainty of the market is changing the way all kinds of business is done in central and southern West Virginia.

Charlie Mitchell, a home consultant at Clayton Homes, was first of the Mitchells to not go to work mining coal. He said people are scaling back because they fear for their jobs.

"The fear is still there in the idea of making a big-ticket investment," Mitchell said. "We sold a lot more mid-range homes … we're seeing people scale back because of the fear."

A coal miner may be making $100,000 a year, this year, but that same miner is increasingly afraid that job will be gone. The boom-and-bust cycles of the coal market have prepared some for this process, but for the others the unknown is unsettling.

Mitchell said he is seeing a number of patterns in housing purchases. Not only are families scaling back, but many are saving to make larger down payments and refusing to use high-valued land as collateral.

"They're starting to realize, if they are 20-something, 24, 25, and all they've seen is a boom period, but history tells us this isn't something new," Mitchell said. "It's happened throughout history. Coal mines boom and bust. I think they are getting wiser about saving more. Maybe instead of a $60,000 truck that's the highest-end you can find, maybe get a $20,000 car that works just fine. Instead of a $100,000 (home), let's spend $50,000 or $60,000. I'm seeing a lot more of that."

Clayton Homes, Mitchell said, even offers a protection plan in which it will pay for three months of the mortgage if the home buyer is laid off.

While there is a nervousness about their jobs in the coalfields, Mitchell said many are hired and others continue to get overtime. Some of those men, like Mitchell, believe this is just another cycle in the coal industry and good times will return.

Coal runs deep

The disruptions of mass layoffs also go way beyond jobs.  Coal is intergenerational and touches on infrastructure, health care, education and recreation.

Moore just took her sister to Marshall University for an education their dad is paying for with saved coal wages.

One of the community's dentists was put through school by her coal miner dad and returned to set up a productive business that immediately employed five

"How many businesses aren't going to happen because somebody's dad can't pay for college tuition because he lost his job in the mine?" Moore asked.

A lot of that dentist's patients are insured through Consol — "These mom and pop places can't provide insurance to their employees," Moore said — and, if the miners are laid off long enough, their families will lose their good insurance.

Consol donated money for a public playground and also supports festivals and scholarships.

Without surface mining, hopes for a new high school out of the floodplain and for a road that would bring Summersville within 20 minutes' drive, down from the hour it takes to get anywhere now, would be dashed.

Frustrated with increasing environmental regulation, residents defend the environmental record of coal in the county.

Their water, drawn from wells below old mines, is clean, they say. A wildlife area on a reclaimed coal mine has fish and ducks in ponds as well as deer, foxes, coyotes and bears.

Ghost counties 

"We're so dependent on coal, whether it's the restaurants, real estate, everything is affected, absolutely everything," Mitchell said.

Holcomb, with the infant daughter, thinks he may move to Canada, and several of his co-workers already have passports in hand.

"Push come to shove, I'll go if I have to. I don't want to go but options get pretty limited," he said.

"People aren't going to have a reason to be here anymore," Moore said. "If we're not really lucky or careful, we might have a ghost county," said Clay County Magistrate Jeffery Boggs.


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