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'What am I supposed to do?' Desperate KY miners block another coal train over pay.

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 1/15/2020 By Will Wright, Lexington Herald-Leader

Video by CBS News

For the second time in less than a year, financially desperate coal miners in Eastern Kentucky have occupied a set of railroad tracks, blocking a coal train to protest their unpaid wages.

The miners, about a dozen employees of Quest Energy, a subsidiary of American Resources Corporation, pledged Monday night to hold their position on the track until the company pays their back wages.

Huddled around a campfire along the railroad tracks in the Kimper area of Pike County, the miners and several of their wives described the financial hardships they have suffered from the lack of paychecks: one miner said his electricity had been cut off; another said his rent is past due; two miners said they could not afford the $50 fee for their children to play elementary school basketball.

“I’m sure the school will work something with me, but what am I supposed to do if they don’t?” said Dylan Davidson, a mining machine operator and roof bolter. “Am I supposed to tell my little boy he can’t play because daddy don’t have the money to pay because I ain’t been paid at work?”

About a dozen miners interviewed at the tracks Monday night said they received their last paycheck Dec. 27. Several provided bank statements to verify their claims. Many miners said they worked every day for about two weeks after the date they were last paid, sometimes putting in 17-hour shifts.

Miners estimated the company owes them each between $2,000 and $3,000.

In a statement Monday, American Resources Corporation disputed their claims, saying it owes some miners for eight days of work, and some for one day. The company also disputed that miners worked 17-hour shifts.

“They will all be paid as we don’t take this lightly,” the company said.

While some miners said they were officially laid off by the company, others said they had not received any official lay-off notice.

“We value the employees greatly for their work and their future work,” ARC said in its statement. “Given challenging markets we are focused on ensuring the longevity of the employment for all the men and women of our organization.”

The protest began Monday afternoon when two miners heard the company planned to haul coal from one of its mines in Pike County. They blocked the tracks and halted the train, which carried about 120 cars.

Kenny Collins, one of the two original miners at the track, said 100 cars were full of coal that came from ARC’s mine. The other 20 cars are full of coal belonging to another operator.

“If you would have paid the men we would’ve been fine and dandy and none of this chaos would’ve started,” Collins said.

Soon after the protest began, more miners arrived. By nightfall, about a dozen miners and several of their wives had assembled on the tracks. Families living in the area offered coffee, firewood and other supplies.

“We just want paid, that’s it,” Davidson said. “We don’t want to block this train, but it comes to a point that we have to.”

“You go three weeks without a payday, you gonna let that train go through here so they can put the money in their pocket and just say to heck with us? No, they can’t do that,” he said.

ARC expanded its Eastern Kentucky operations last year when it purchased mines in Perry County during the bankruptcy of Cambrian Coal.

Miners in Perry County also reported they had not been paid for past work, and said the company had struggled to maintain the operation, laying off dozens of employees. ARC’s Pike County employees voiced the same financial struggles, saying the company forced them to used dilapidated equipment, including rusted drill bits and other used parts.

A review of the company’s financial reports show that its rate of coal production declined dramatically leading up to its acquisition of the Perry County mines.

During the financial quarter ending Sept. 30, the company’s rate of coal production dropped by about 80 percent from the previous quarter. At the same time, the company promised investors it would make several costly improvements to the Perry County mining complex, including that it would put $1.5 million into a mine consolidation project.

At the same time, financial records show the company was experiencing a steep drop in coal sales. In the three months that ended June 30, the company had produced 127,000 tons of coal, but that dropped to less than 26,000 during the three months that ended September 30. Coal sales fell to just $1.85 million, down from $8.89 million during the same period last year.

The company’s CEO, Mark Jensen, assured investors that the company was “extremely excited about how our platform is set up to perform in 2020 and beyond.”

Records obtained by the Herald-Leader show that neither ARC nor any of its subsidiary companies had posted a performance bond with the state to protect wages as of November, possibly in violation of state law.

The performance bond issue made headlines last year when Blackjewel LLC failed to pay the bond and laid off hundreds of employees without paying them for weeks of work. Some former Blackjewel workers spent weeks camped out along a set of railroad tracks in Harlan County to block a train hauling coal from a company mine.

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet, under former Gov. Matt Bevin, issued dozens of notices of violation to coal and construction companies, prompting at least five companies to post the bond. Records obtained by the Herald-Leader were partially redacted and did not show the value of the bonds.

Then-Attorney General Andy Beshear promised to enforce the bond requirement if he were elected governor. When asked for information last week, following reports that ARC’s Perry County employees had not been paid, Beshear’s Labor Cabinet either could not or would not say if ARC or its subsidiaries had posted the bond since November.

In a statement to the Herald-Leader, Beshear said he is “committed to ensuring that these miners are fairly paid for their work.”

“I have asked the Labor Cabinet to contact miners impacted and investigate the matter to not only determine the back wages due to employees, but also whether the employer is in compliance with Kentucky’s performance bond law,” Beshear said. “We will work as swiftly as possible to review and analyze the information we gather to assist the employees in securing their back wages.”

Near midnight Monday, Mary and Timmy George, of Pike County, sat by a fire at the tracks and worried about their three children.

Their rent is past due, and as for other bills, “it’s coming down to the wire.”

“They’re expecting them to come down here every day and not get a dime,” Mary George said. “We have families just like they do.”

©2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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