HAZARD — On Feb. 2, Pine Branch Coal announced more than 150 employees will be laid off in April. Three Pine Branch sites are the focus of these layoffs, two of which are located in Perry County, with one operation located in Leslie County. The Perry County sites are the Rowdy Gap Mine on Noble Cockrell Fork Road and the Job 20 Strip on Spencer Fork Road. In Leslie County, employees of the Thunder Ridge Mine on Leeco Road will be effected.
Layoffs in the coal industry over the past few years have been devastating to the local economy. In January, the Hazard Herald published an article about the debate over where new schools in Perry County should be built. During his interview with the Hazard Herald, Perry County Schools Financial Director, Jody Maggard, cited decreasing enrollment in local schools, due to citizens migrating away from this area’s receding economy, as a determining factor in deciding which districts in the county lose funding from the state and which schools, as a result, will have no choice other than to close their doors forever. One week later, the Hazard Herald published an article about Fugate Entertainment’s once thriving empire now becoming completely dormant after the closing of Fugate’s Cinema. These stories, plus many more, serve as evidence that the local economy is in depression and a surplus of unemployed miners are migrating away from Southeastern Kentucky.
Gary Bentley is a former miner, born and raised in the mountains, who now finds himself building a new life away from his native home. Bentley spoke with the Hazard Herald following Pine Branch’s recent layoff announcement.
“I was a Mine Foreman working for Arch Coal in Knott County,” said Bentley, “It was the summer of 2012. I had been watching miners lose their jobs for almost two years before it finally caught up to me. I knew it was coming; I just didn’t expect it to happen as fast as it did. I was born and raised in Whitesburg. As an adult, I purchased my first home in Jenkins. I had never lived outside of Letcher County for 29 years. Moving didn’t even seem like an option. I was divorced. My daughter lived with her mother in Letcher County. All of my immediate family lived in Letcher County. It was a very big deal for me to leave.”
As for now, most of the Pine Branch employees, who are part of last week’s layoffs, remain at work. They will have until April to secure another job or sign-up for unemployment benefits. The layoff includes workers from several different trades, such as mechanics and equipment operators. Many of them are reluctant to discuss the layoffs publicly. The Hazard Herald was able to speak with the wife of one of last week’s laid off employees. She asked to remain anonymous. However, she did talk about the hardships facing her family.
“We are trying to keep good spirits about it,” she said, “We want to stay here. We don’t want to leave. But we might have to.”
Leaving, for her and her husband, means more than simply changing addresses. They grew up in Perry County. They have children, all of whom are also beginning to build lives in the community where they were raised. They go to church here and a great deal of their family members live close by. Moving away from home will mean moving away from nearly everything they love.
Perry County’s population has continued to decrease steadily since 1980. There are approximately 6,000 fewer people living in Perry County today than there were 36 years ago according to the U.S. Census. The largest decline in Perry County’s population came between 1940 and 1970, when the number dropped from 47,828 to 26,259 before once again rising slightly. During the time period between 1940 and 1970, many Perry County natives migrated northward to places like Southern Indiana and Southern Ohio to find factory work. The same trend is forming today on a smaller scale.
Gary Bentley described his life after leaving the mountains.
“Coal miners have skills and talents that are valuable in a multitude of workplaces,” said Bentley, “I encourage these men and women to look outside the box. Look in places they might not normally consider. It is surprising what you can find in the world. I was fortunate. I had fallen in love with my current wife, Marcie Crim. She encouraged me, supported me and pushed me to be a better man. I looked into employment at a Potassium Ash mine in Carlsbad, New Mexico and coal mines in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Illinois. I got lucky and was offered a job in Western Kentucky. I began mining there in August of 2012. The industry wasn’t improving and I was growing tired of being concerned with whether I would have a job each day I went to work. Marcie once again believed in me and encouraged me to step outside of my boundaries and do something different. I went into the aluminum industry. My benefits, salary and the work itself was better than any mining job I had ever worked.”
Yet a legion of people here in the mountains are clinging to hope for a brighter future and they are working hard to see that the talents of professionals in the coal industry remain part of the local workforce. One organization striving to make a difference is EKCEP.
EKCEP and their community action partners offer a wide variety of services. The Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program can help with costs for training for new careers, tuition or certifications, among other things, and this program is open not only for laid off miners but also their spouses. Another initiative, Community Impact, utilizes National Emergency Funds from the U.S. Dept. of Labor and provides similar services as H.O.M.E., though it is for folks who worked outside of the coal industry but were negatively impacted by the econimic downturn the decline in coal mining has created. This could include everything from retail and heavy equipment services to manufacturing jobs and many other professions. EKCEP’s Job Clubs are currently in the second week of an eight-week session. Job Club is a free of charge weekly meeting for jobseekers, where facilitators assist individuals with their job search, which could include connecting people with local employers. Teleworks U.S.A. is another service , which connects people with legitimate telework jobs that can be performed either from home or from the Teleworks Hub in Hazard. These are normally customer service jobs, but in some cases they have the potential to pay up to $20 per hour when bonuses are included.
In a county consisting of approximately 30,000 citizens, more than 150 layoffs can stun the local economy. However, the estimated 150 Pine Branch layoffs that are looming in April are only the latest addition to a total number that equals an estimated 30 percent drop in Perry County coal related jobs over the course of the past decade.
Gary Bentley has written a series of pieces that chronicle his life working in the mines. Bentley’s pieces can be read at dailyyonder.com/tag/by-gary-bentley. The Kentucky Career Center has a location in Hazard with resources for the unemployed. The center is located at 412 Roy Campbell Drive. More information about the programs EKCEP provides for out of work miners can be found on their website, ekcep.org.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.