For the hard-working men and women of the coal mining industry in Wyoming, not even beer and sports at the local bar could diffuse the palpable tension in the air. Miners gathered not to unwind after a long day at work, but rather to sit and worry whether they may be next to lose their jobs as Wright and other rural Wyoming towns deal with scores of mining layoffs.
“It’s just devastating for a community,” said Wright Economic Development Coordinator Brandi Harlow in an exclusive from the Casper Star-Tribune. “We’re such a small, tight-knit community. Everybody in Wright is touched by coal mine jobs.”
Indeed, it used to be good times in the Wyoming coal industry, as working in the mines fostered a familial environment among workers, while these employees took home substantial pay. These workers had seen the best of times and the worst of times, but even in those worst of times, they knew they still had jobs to fall back on. But with major mining firms Peabody Energy and Arch Coal having announced massive layoffs on Thursday, amounting to over 460 jobs or 15 percent of their workforce, concerns for the future of the industry have certainly amplified.
Harlow told the Star-Tribune that the small town of Wright in northeast Wyoming was, from the get-go, a coal mining town. Its numerous businesses and establishments, including its mom and pop shops, its bars, and even its schools, owe their success to the coal mining industry, and when that industry is faltering, so do those establishments. And the entire town is worse for it, now that the above mentioned companies have announced their layoffs.
“Everybody’s families are going to be impacted dramatically,” said mining facility janitor Jason Johnson in the same special report. “Pockets are going to be hurt. People are going to have to buck up, get any job they can take.”
But the question is – where do the laid-off miners go from here? And where does Wright go from here? According to Big D gas station assistant manager Sandy Willison, the current layoffs are the worst they’ve seen so far. And, at the rate things are going, Wright may become a “ghost town” eventually. “So if the mines are gone, the town’s gone,” she said.
It isn’t just Wright in Wyoming that’s suffering a coal mining crunch at the moment, as other coal towns are also in trouble.
“Maybe we were all complacent a little bit. Maybe this can wake us up,” said Gilette mayor Louise Carter-King, stressing the state’s resilience in a statement. “Wyoming has heard all along, diversify, diversify. But when you don’t have much of a labor force it’s hard to start a whole new ballgame.
“It is difficult and heartbreaking to hear about these layoffs … Gillette is a city that rallies around our neighbors. We’ll make it.” Carter-King’s husband, most notably, works at a coal mine in nearby Peabody, where the Caballo mine had just laid off about 20 employees.
Meanwhile, state officials are mulling ways to help laid off coal workers find work in the same field in other areas, or in a different field altogether, depending on their training and expertise, or willingness to be trained. According to Wyoming principal state economist Wenlin Liu, the main challenge would be finding work that would offer similar compensation to what they were earning in the coal mines.
“Given the fact that in coal mining the wage rate is around $80,000, any other service industry will be a big cut,” Liu commented in a report from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “They might have to go get some training and be willing to switch their occupations. But many of them do drive trucks around, so that may be (a chance to drive a) different type of truck or vehicle. That’s something relatively close.”