Employee vehicles fill a parking lot at Belle Ayr mine in August 2016. Blackjewel LLC, which ran the mines, declared bankruptcy July 1 and sent nearly 600 miners home. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

As a week of budget amending wrapped up Friday, the House and Senate took opposite positions on a $500,000 appropriation to help the next round of laid-off coal miners or other workers. 

The Senate-approved amendment would earmark the funds for the Department of Workforce Services to spend supporting workers subject to a mass layoff. The amendment defines a mass layoff as when an employer with 50 or more workers lays half of them off. 

When workers suddenly lose a paycheck, the account will “put food on the table and make sure they can get medicine,” said Senate Majority Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), who sponsored the Senate amendment. Such a safety net is one of the “basic premises of our society,” Driskill said.

The Senate voted 22-8 to adopt the measure. 

The House, meanwhile, twice voted narrowly against including the amendment. The amendment failed 26-30 on its first attempt. It failed 27-30 on its second, according to sponsor House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie). 

Concerns in the lower chamber focused on the parameters of eligibility to use the fund, which were deemed too broad. Some House opponents said the definition of a catastrophic layoff was too inclusive.

Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower)

Representatives from the two bodies will this week negotiate how to reconcile the different versions of the budget bill. The compromise they arrive at will subsequently require the approval of both the House and Senate. Spending increases that only found success in one chamber typically carry less clout in that process. 

In such cases the negotiators often compromise by seeking only half the funding amount, Driskill said. If that happens, $250,000 in funding for laid off workers would pass on to the governor. 

The amendment was “a start,” Driskill said, that the Legislature can subsequently build from. “At a reasonable cost, we make it where these people feel someone actually cares about them,” Driskill said. “We don’t just look at them as someone who pays us taxes.” 

The $500,000 figure had always been a starting point, Driskill said, for a problem that isn’t going away. Legislators did not yet know how much money the state would need to effectively cushion the blow of sudden layoffs, he said. 

In recent Wyoming history, significant layoffs have largely unfolded  in the energy industry. The prominent layoff of almost 600 Blackjewel employees in July 2019 has been on lawmakers’ minds all fall — sparking the creation of a special committee. 

Oil and gas contractor Haliburton also dealt regional economies bad news in 2019, when it laid off 650 workers across a number of states. Haliburton had a significant presence in Rock Springs and southwest Wyoming. 

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The Department of Workforce Services estimates 93 or more Wyoming workers were laid off by the oil and gas company. Those cutbacks didn’t have as acute an impact in Rock Springs as Blackjewel did in Gillette — Haliburton moved some employees to other areas, while other workers found jobs in trona mines — according to an official with the Sweetwater Economic Development Commission. 

Gordon mentioned Blackjewel’s collapse during his state-of-the-state speech to kick off the Legislative session. “While other states with Blackjewel operations vibrated ineffectively,” he said, “Wyoming sprang into action.” Indeed, in the days after the bankruptcy, state officials, including Gordon himself and several of his agency heads, rushed to Gillette to meet with the laid-off workers. 

Despite that show of force, Blackjewel miners spent the next four months out of work. In addition to not being paid, miners discovered Blackjewel had withheld retirement, health savings and tax dollars from their paychecks without depositing the money in the relative accounts.

House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie)

The governor’s office expressed support for the amendment Monday. “This amendment would enhance our ability to provide support in the event of future layoffs,” governor’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman wrote to WyoFile. “Additional resources to supplement DWS existing efforts are always welcome.”

In introducing her first attempt at passing the amendment, Connolly said a fund to help workers in more flexible ways than unemployment insurance is a tool other states have that Wyoming does not.  

As the Blackjewel layoffs showed, the state has other shortfalls. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services found itself unable to conduct investigations into missing funds on behalf of Blackjewel miners who didn’t file claims with the agency. The vast majority of the miners did not file such claims, and DWS officials have suggested employees feared retaliation as they waited for a chance to return to work.  

Lawmakers are separately considering legislation to close some of those loopholes. 

Though it comes amid a blizzard of bills to prop up the state’s struggling coal, oil and gas industries, the money in the amendment is one of just a few legislative efforts to directly aid Wyoming workers hit by job losses. 

In contrast to the $500,000 — which could become $250,000 — lawmakers kicked off the session with at least $48 million in proposed spending for coal research, carbon capture projects and other efforts to create new markets and preserve existing markets for the coal industry.

Due to a publishing error, this story originally ran with the author listed as WyoFile managing editor Katie Klingsporn. —Ed.

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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