Out-Of-Work Kentucky Coal Miners Get A Boost From The Federal Government

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rob Carr

Coal miners who have been laid off in Kentucky are getting a boost, thanks to new funding from the U.S. Department of Labor.

On Wednesday, the Department of Labor announced it would be awarding $7.5 million to Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc. (EKCEP) to help Kentuckians who used to work in the coal industry find new jobs. The money is a National Emergency Grant, a government grant program that provides funding to states to help with employment training and programs. The award is going specifically to EKCEP’s Hiring Our Miners Everyday (HOME) program, which is focused on getting out-of-work coal miners and their spouses the training, licencing and job-seeking help they need to get back into the workforce.

HOME started in March 2013 with an initial National Emergency Grant of $3.7 million. Michael Cornett, director of agency expansion and public relations for EKCEP, said since the program began, a little under 2,000 laid-off coal miners have gone through the program and about 900 have been placed in jobs. He said the additional money from the Department of Labor will go toward attracting more former coal miners to the program — 2,000 is about a quarter of the number of coal miners laid off since January 2012, he said — and finding jobs for miners who are in the program already but haven’t yet found employment. He said former miners are placed in a range of jobs through the program, depending on what skills they already have and what they’re interested in, including construction, carpentry, and trucking.

“It’s a variety of different jobs, but the common denominator is that these are really hard workers, they’re intelligent workers, and they’re some of the most loyal workers in the industry,” Cornett said. “They just need the right people to broker connections with different industries and employers in the region and state.”

Cornett said that though the coal industry in Kentucky has gone through ups and downs in the past, the recent downturn is different because a large number of miners lost their jobs in a short amount of time, and most of them aren’t getting rehired by the coal industry. In the past, he said, miners might be laid off from their jobs for a few months but then be called back to work another coal mining job, something that’s largely not happening anymore. And because coal mining jobs pay more now than they have in the past, the downturn of the coal industry affects the state’s overall economy more than it has in previous years.

Bracken Hendricks, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the Department of Labor’s grant to Kentucky will be key in helping the state through its energy transition.

“This action by the Department of Labor is an essential step in ensuring that the working men and women of Appalachian coal-dependent communities are not left behind,” he said. “This is essential relief, but it is only a first step in ensuring economic opportunity for mining communities, as new forms of clean energy power future jobs and growth.”

West Virginia, which is also experiencing a decline in its coal industry, received an NEG grant in June 2012 to help coal miners and their families receive job training. The decline of the Central Appalachian coal industry has been clearly observed for decades, due in large part to the mechanization of the industry. Coal jobs in West Virginia and Kentucky have been falling since the mid-1980s, with job numbers rising a bit in the years leading up to 2012 but then falling again. In 2013, coal jobs in Kentucky were lower than at any time since record-keeping started in the state in 1927, with most of the job losses occurring in the eastern portion of the state. New mining practices, such as mountaintop removal, have driven this job loss — since mountaintop removal made coal extraction more mechanized, fewer miners were needed to extract coal.

Overall, the coal industry is also suffering economically as a result of the natural gas boom, which has emerged as a cheaper fuel source. And Appalachian coal is losing out price-wise to cheaper coal out west, in Wyoming and Illinois, which is also contributing to the decline in jobs.

Unlike West Virginia, however, Kentucky has limited stores of natural gas, which means the state can’t shift its coal economy over to the natural gas industry. Along with the grant to HOME, earlier this year, an eight-county area of southeastern Kentucky was chosen for HUD’s Promise Zone program, which aims to revitalize impoverished communities.

Kentucky faces an 18 percent CO2 emissions reductions goal by 2030 under the new EPA power plant rule, while West Virginia faces 20 percent. Though the downturn in Kentucky’s coal industry has clearly been underway for some time, the state’s politicians have been quick to frame the new regulations as unfair and unachievable. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Kentucky, called the new regulations “pie in the sky” and said they would be “impossible to achieve.” Other Kentucky lawmakers have made similar comments, with Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican Leader from Kentucky, saying the rule was “the single worst blow to Kentucky‚Äôs economy in modern times.”

Josh Bivens, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said the U.S. needs to invest in more programs like Kentucky’s, so that coal miners across the country can be transitioned into new jobs.