CASPER — A wave of coal company bankruptcies has dragged Wyoming through years of economic turbulence. Half a dozen coal bankruptcies have shaken the state since 2015, the latest of which ground two mammoth coal mines temporarily to a halt last summer. As coal operators reorganize their finances, they often can erase outstanding tax, labor and reclamation liabilities during court proceedings, leaving counties and taxpayers to pick up the pieces.
In response, Wyoming lawmakers launched a committee last year to ensure the state is better prepared if more bankruptcies rock the Powder River Basin. One of the committee’s goals included improving protections for workers in the event a mining companies falls into Chapter 11. At the Legislature’s select committee meeting on coal bankruptcies held Thursday, lawmakers advanced several labor bills, each focused on beefing up protections for workers in the state.
As it stands, Wyoming labor statutes do not protect workers who file wage claims from employer retaliation. When coal operator Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy July 1, it owed 506 workers hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and benefits. But only a few dozen workers ultimately filed a claim for compensation.
Several workers chose not to pursue a claim for fear of retaliation from the company, according to Kelly Roseberry, an attorney with the Labor Standards Office in Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
Committee members adopted a bill draft Thursday that would protect workers who file a wage claim from an employer’s retaliation.
“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for any employer to discharge, harass, discipline or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because the employee filed a claim for unpaid wages,” according to the draft bill.
But problems still exist even when an employee does choose to file a wage claim. Pursuing the 33 workers’ wage claims related to the Blackjewel bankruptcy wasn’t easy for the Labor Standards Office either, according to Roseberry.
For one, the office cannot pursue any unpaid wage claims until a worker has officially “separated from an employer” and is no longer considered a current employee with a company. But Blackjewel’s bankruptcy debacle left workers largely in the dark. Few knew the status of their employment while the mines idled and the company slogged through bankruptcy court.
In addition, state attorneys struggled to collect the necessary records from the company needed to fight on behalf of workers. Another bill advanced to session Thursday would allow the Labor Standards Office to pursue an investigation into a company’s wage or hour records if it files for bankruptcy.
Despite the committee’s eagerness to bolster protection for the state’s miners, lawmakers still declined to advance legislation allowing the Labor Standards Office attorneys to file a lawsuit on behalf of employees with wage claims.
Hundreds of Blackjewel workers in Kentucky collected unpaid wages from the bankruptcy company, because the state’s Department of Labor filed a suit in the bankruptcy court on behalf of employees.
“That, in contrast to here in Wyoming where the state ... does not have the authority to pursue those wages in bankruptcy court,” Roseberry explained.
What’s more, when Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, Wyoming’s Labor Standards Office had few means to fight on behalf of workers when companies withheld wages or benefits because only county attorneys can represent workers in unpaid wage claims.
According to the Labor Standards Office, a total of 421 claims were filed against Wyoming employers last year. The state collected $34,198.51 in unpaid wages in 2019. Labor Standards also collected $13,450.23 for wage claims against out-of-state employers in 2019, according to Labor Standard’s Office data presented at the committee meeting.