Becky Bentley’s heart sank when she and her co-workers were called into the Black Butte Coal Company’s cafeteria earlier this week. The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop as she said the employees were filled with dread about the news they were about to receive.
Their intuition proved out as she and 18 others were told they were losing their jobs at the coal mine east of Rock Springs, Wyoming.
“I know some of them were pissed,” she said. “So was I. I was upset.”
Representatives from Black Butte told Cowboy State Daily that the primary reason for the layoffs is a continued failure of the federal Department of the Interior (DOI) to approve planned expanded operations at Black Butte.
It’s a tough predicament for Bentley, a single mother solely responsible for paying her home mortgage and buying gifts for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Bentley, 40, has one daughter in elementary school and just got done paying for a divorce.
An Alaska native, her only other family member in Wyoming is a 19-year-old daughter who also lives with her and can only financially support herself with the income from her part-time job.
Bentley said she thoroughly appreciated working at the mine. Before starting on at Black Butte, she worked in construction, which led her to spending significant time away from home.
The coal mine, where she has worked for about 18 months, was a job opportunity that allowed her to earn a respectable wage, health benefits and spend much more time with her daughters.
Workers Have Questions
Bentley believes Black Butte management misled her and other employees into thinking that they had solid job security.
“We got pretty comfortable with that, and now that they did this laying off thing,” she said. “It kind of threw us for a loop.”
Now, Bentley is staring at becoming unemployed and unable to find work near her home that pays comparable to the coal plant. She believes some sexism still pervades the labor industries, which puts her at a disadvantage when competing for jobs against men with the same level of experience.
“It’s hard to get a job no matter how much you know. It can still be hard,” she said. “There’s a lot of people out there who are close-minded about it that think women shouldn’t be working in a man’s world.”
And even if she did go back to construction, she probably wouldn’t be able to start work until April because it’s the off-season for that industry.
Cliff Green, 47, is in a similar situation, having worked at Black Butte for more than four years as a mechanic before being laid off this week. He has no idea where he will look for work next and isn’t optimistic he can find an equal or better-paying job near home.
“I hope so, but I really can’t see that,” he said. “I don’t have a whole lot of hope.”
Bentley and Green said they had no indication from management at Black Butte that they could be laid off in the near future.
But Bentley she noticed some warning signs when it started to seem they were hauling more dirt than coal, which she said sparked rumors among the employees.
Bentley said Steve Gili, the mine manager at Black Butte Coal, attempted to dispel the rumors by telling workers their jobs were safe a few months ago. Although he gave no promises for the next year, Bentley said he assured people their jobs were safe because a demand for coal still exists.
Although some of her co-workers were still suspicious, Bentley said she was confident she wouldn’t be laid off, particularly because Gili said the company may bolster the workforce there in the future, not cut it.
They both suspect that the real reason the plant is laying off employees is because of mismanagement, saying he believes the coal mine wouldn’t be ready to implement the expansion it has talked about even if it got the go-ahead from the DOI.
“They don’t have enough reclamation done to open another pit,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”
Then There’s The Timing
What Bentley and Green find particularly frustrating about the layoffs is the timing.
“They made it difficult for us to find other jobs with it being this time of year,” Bentley said. “They definitely should have given us more time, a bigger heads up or more pay, or something.”
Gili told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday the company made the cuts before the holidays to allow the laid off employees to properly budget their spending for the holiday season with the knowledge they would soon lose their source of income.
“I don’t buy it for a minute,” Green said.
Randle Seymour, 47, has a less critical perspective of the company. Seymour has worked in the oil industry before and was laid off there as well. He expected uncertain job security when taking his job at the coal mine about six months ago, but said the timing of the layoff was more of his surprise.
“I don’t think there’s any good time to lay people off,” he said.
One of his biggest concerns is losing his health insurance as he has a bad knee that needs surgery.
Despite being well aware of the boom-and-bust cycles that follow the fossil fuel industries and the ever-present possibility of layoffs, Seymour said he stays in the field because of “the almighty dollar,” referring to the high wages generally associated with these jobs.
Message To Biden
The coal industry has been on a downward trajectory for about a decade. President Joe Biden’s administration has looked at coal much less favorably in comparison to sources of green energy like wind and solar in his effort to combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions.
Although Green doesn’t blame Biden for his layoff, he does wish the president would acknowledge the production that the industry still provides and called his energy policies “pretty piss poor.”
Black Butte also provides coal to the Jim Bridger Power Plant nearby, which still depends on this source of energy despite making a transition to natural gas.
“It’s certainly pretty dumb (of Biden) to be doing what he’s doing,” Green said. “I’m pretty certain natural gas doesn’t have a sustainable future.”
Bentley sees it as a matter of providing jobs to the community. Although she sees the merit in pursuing more sustainable forms of energy, she believes the president’s approach is a mistake and shouldn’t come at the cost of jobs like her own.
“It’s taking jobs away from so many families,” she said. “Unless he’s going to produce those jobs and trainings as fast as he’s taking them away, then he should just let it be. Let us have that expansion for the coal.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.