Miners in Kentucky devastated by the sudden loss of their jobs and wages due them are coming close to overwhelming the abilities of local agencies to help them.
United Methodists are doing their best to lend a hand — helping with food, utility bills and school supplies for miners’ children.
As miners have been unable to pay utility bills, many have relied on Red Bird Mission for water.
“In earlier months we’d only been (selling for a token amount) about 200 gallons of water a week,” said Tracy Nolan, director of community outreach for the United Methodist Red Bird Mission in Beverly, Kentucky.
“Last week we had 1,300 gallons of water accessed out of the kiosk.”
The Red Bird Mission food bank also used up three months of supplies in one month, she said.
“It’s true and it’s real and we will soon face a financial concern ourselves,” she said. “I responded immediately, but I’m not going to be able to consistently do that for months.”
The problems began on July 1, when employees of the Blackjewel mining company learned the company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy but would continue operating as usual, said Clifford Berry, who was a manager of engineering for Blackjewel.
“About 2 p.m. that afternoon, we got another call that said the bankruptcy judge didn’t approve (Blackjewel’s) plan,” Berry said. “All the operations were shut down. Everyone was told to go home. So 1,700 employees in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming went home on July 1.”
In protest, miners and their families blocked a shipment of about $1 million in coal the bankrupt company was trying to transport, while the coal miners themselves faced a growing snowball of financial repercussions.
Workers were paid June 28, but after the checks were cashed and some had spent the money, the bank froze the checks and took payments back out of the worker’s accounts because of the bankruptcy filing. Deductions like those for 401(k) plans were not paid. The miners worked from June 28 until July 1 and have not been paid for that week.
“Also, my understanding is child support payments that were being taken out were not being paid to the appropriate authorities,” Berry said. Berry said he heard that the court told one miner that if he didn’t pay child support, he would be jailed.
The Rev. James Savage, pastor of Jack’s Creek and Bowen’s Creek United Methodist churches, said the bankruptcy affected many miners because the company was so large.
“What (Blackjewel) did was legal,” said Savage, who is also assistant conference superintendent for the Red Bird Missionary Conference. “It may not be ethical or moral, but it’s legal. They shifted money from one company to another and you can do that, legally.”
In fact, Berry said he was considering an offer to work at a company that may be buying a piece of Blackjewel’s assets.
“There are also other coal companies in the area that have filed bankruptcy, and they are in the process of selling their operations,” Berry said. “Blackjewel was the sixth largest in the U.S., production-wise, so it’s just a bigger devastation than some of the other coal companies that have filed bankruptcy.”
Harlan First United Methodist Church and Cranks Creek United Methodist Church have both stepped up their food assistance programs, Savage said.
Beverly United Methodist Church had a back-to-school event and gave away clothing and school supplies.
“Most of the calls we’re receiving are utility assistance,” Savage said. “The money that normally helps the families with utilities assistance is already gone. We’re helping as we can, but of course we don’t have a lot of money to do that.”
Some church efforts to help are more modest, but symbolically significant.
Women in one local church staged a gospel singing and dinner. They raised enough to give $54 to each family affected in Leslie County, Kentucky.
“It’s not a lot, but the communities are really starting to pull together, which is great,” Savage said.
Cranks Creek United Methodist Church provides boxes of food worth about $300 once a month, and also keeps a full blessing box outside the church.
“The need is definitely greater,” said Lawana Blevins, wife of the pastor, the Rev. Stanley Blevins. “We did boxes for 85 families this month. Normally we would do 70.”
Blevins said she knew some miners who were walking away from the coal business, signing up for classes at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Cumberland, Kentucky. The school offers programs in nursing, welding, automobile mechanics and more.
“I know of one miner, because he’s a family member,” she said. “He’s studying to be a machinist, so he’s getting training to get another job — something dependable.”
Red Bird Mission is seeing many new clients, Nolan said.
“We have seen miners and their families coming in for our food pantry, and a lot of times that’s a brand new service for them,” Nolan said.
Red Bird Mission has waived the usual verifications of need so they can help quickly.
“We help them navigate the system for longer term benefits, government benefits, and alert them to which offices to access,” Nolan said. “So it’s some case management services.”
Families normally sign up by June for the regular back-to-school program at Red Bird Mission, but the mission waived that requirement this year. The crisis came just as families needed school supplies, she noted.
“We served 100 families with backpacks fully loaded with the supplies they are going to need to start the school year,” Nolan said.
Access to health care and other services may be compromised because of vehicle repossessions, so Red Bird Mission is helping families with information about the availability of public transportation.
“This is all new,” Nolan said. “They may not be aware of these services that some of the low-income population is already aware of.”