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Locked out Blackjewel workers look for other jobs while in limbo

GILLETTE — Patrick Johnson and his father Buck were out on a lake fishing when they got the news that their employer, Blackjewel LLC, had filed for bankruptcy. Hours later, as they were sitting and talking, they got a call from a coworker saying the company’s employees had been sent home from the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines.

Patrick had been working at Eagle Butte mine for a month, but Buck had spent 18 years at Belle Ayr.

“It definitely put a damper on the camping trip for a little bit,” Patrick said. “But life goes on. You just got to move past it, figure out what you’re going to do from there.”

Patrick Johnson was just one of hundreds trying to move on and find new jobs at a job fair Wednesday at the Gillette College Technical Education Center.

Kay Roth of Wyoming Workforce Services estimated that more than 325 people had come through the job fair in the first few hours. There were 40 companies at the event that was put together in a week.

Companies came from across the region, including South Dakota, Colorado, Montana and Utah.

Tina Crider-Honeycutt, risk management specialist for Campbell County’s Human Resources Department, said she was encouraged to see that the Blackjewel employees are keeping their spirits up.

“We’ve had a lot of positive people,” she said. “You can tell they’re Gillette strong. They’re not going to let this get them down.”

The lockout affects 1,700 Blackjewel employees, including about 580 from the Wyoming mines. The company also has coal mines in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

Blackjewel abruptly shut down operations July 1 after a $20 million emergency financing package was pulled by the bank. The money was intended to allow the mines to continue as usual during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. After a turbulent week that included more court hearings, more than 1,000 bounced paychecks and ouster of the former president and CEO Jeff Hoops, a new reorganization team is working to secure financing and reopen the mines.

Chad Bonsness worked for 20 years at Eagle Butte mine. Although he was finding some good prospects at the job fair Wednesday, he’s still “holding out to see what happens in the next week or two.”

“I think we’ll all be able to go back to work,” he said, adding that he advises job seekers to think their decisions through.

“Don’t jump in and take the first (job), you know,” he said. “You’ve got to look through it, think it through before you jump off the diving board.”

He noted that there are “hundreds of jobs” outside of Gillette, but “do you want to relocate though? That’s the big thing.”

Alec Laub and Johnson had interviews Wednesday afternoon. They both said they were frustrated by the lack of communication between Blackjewel and its employees.

“Some days you’re waiting to hear news and you’re not getting much,” said Laub, who worked at Belle Ayr. “The hardest part is just not knowing ... what exactly is going on.”

All they know about the situation is what they’ve seen online, Johnson said.

“It could be we get a call Monday and they say, ‘The doors are open, come back to work,’” he said. “Or it could be two months from now.”

Johnson said that since he’d only spent a month at Blackjewel, he’ll probably part ways with the company. He wants to stay in Gillette and the coal industry, though, and has been looking at Cloud Peak and Peabody Energy as potential landing spots. Both companies have large Powder River Basin mines and were represented at the job fair.

Laub and Johnson said that while the past several days have been stressful, the community support has made life a little bit easier.

“Having all these people come together helping us out is really making it a lot easier on us,” Johnson said. “It’s just been amazing.”

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