Retired from Kemmerer coal mine, workers plead for pensions in company bankruptcy

Source: Casper Star Tribune

Perry Norris, 65, worked at the Kemmerer coal mine for 40 years. For four decades he worked three shift rotations. He broke an elbow at the mine in southern Wyoming, broke his back and picked up a persistent cough from years of inhaling dust, he explained in a handwritten letter submitted Monday to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston, where Westmoreland is moving rapidly through its Chapter 11 restructuring.

His reason for writing was to object to Westmoreland potentially cutting pensions and health care benefits for retired miners like him.

“I am 65 and my wife is 64,” Norris wrote. “We are barely surviving on our social security and retirement together.”

Similar letters told similar stories: 30, 40, 46 years of work in Kemmerer and fear that income those workers had believed would carry them through retirement would disappear with the approval of a judge in Texas.

Westmoreland Coal Co., which owns the Kemmerer mine and three mines in Montana, filed for bankruptcy in early October, with a lender already on hand and a plan to restructure $90 million in debt. The company, which is one of the oldest coal firms in the country, would also sell off core assets.

In bankruptcy filings this week, the company requested permission from the court to offer incentives to 243 managers, averaging $6,000 per upper-level manager. The company would like to set aside $1.5 million per quarter through the period of bankruptcy for bonuses.

The company argued that incentives — which are not uncommon during bankruptcies — would keep mangers from leaving due to the company’s financial insolvency. Bonuses were also requested of bankruptcy judges in the high-profile Chapter 11 cases of Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources, large Wyoming coal firms whose bankruptcies bookended Wyoming’s dramatic coal downturn.

Westmoreland was the first coal firm to seek bankruptcy protections since 2016, when the largest firms in Wyoming buckled under debt in a narrowing coal market. The pressures that led to those bankruptcies in the Powder River Basin have continued — competition with cheap natural gas, an increase in renewable power on the grid, customer preference for green energy — and they’ve pressured Westmoreland.

But the United Mine Workers of America have protested Westmoreland’s plea for relief at the expense of miners who bargained their retirement plans over decades of work in southern Wyoming.

Weeks after Westmoreland’s bankruptcy filing, the United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the coal firm’s reorganization plan over retiree benefits. The union argued that the company’s progress was unnecessarily rushed and that Westmoreland’s lender would oversee employee bargaining agreements and benefits.

The union and the company had spatted via letters in the runup to the bankruptcy over this very issue. The union argued Westmoreland had an obligation. The company pressed that economic conditions had changed for the worse.

“The unfortunate reality is that Westmoreland Coal Company and its subsidiaries cannot survive as a going concern without material changes to the retiree medical benefits currently offered to union employees and retirees,” a Sept. 18 letter from the company to the union’s lawyers states. “We will be filing for Chapter 11 protection shortly and we will have no choice but to address this pressing issue.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 9 that Westmoreland had paid $10.2 million in bonuses to its executives in the year before filing for bankruptcy, a point noted in many of the miners’ letters.

Miners are looking at the possibility of poverty, wrote Steven Hutchinson of Utah, who said he worked at the Kemmerer mine for 41 years before retiring.

“Please be wise and have (compassion) on the worker, his family,” he wrote. “Hold Westmoreland to the (their) moral responsibilities and commitments.”

Calls to Westmoreland’s offices in Colorado were not returned by press time.

The Kemmerer mine employed 286 miners as of June. The union is currently bargaining for a new contract, a process union members report has been slowed by the bankruptcy.

Pacificorp, the lone buyer of coal from the Kemmerer mine, has also lodged a protest to some of Westmoreland’s bankruptcy plans. The Oregon-based utility, parent company to Rocky Mountain Power, said that if Kemmerer were to abruptly shut down it would “advance the interest of private financial creditors over public utilities and their customers.”

The mine and the power plant are significant drivers of local income, as well as two of the few employment opportunities in the rural town.

Jim Vilos worked at the mine for 41 years. His letter to the judge recalls working in subzero temperatures that numbed the feet and hands.

“It was our job and we done it,” he said. “We the miners kept our end of the deal.”

Written by: Heather Richards