West Virginia miners slam Republican governor with lawsuit over bounced paychecks

Between hundreds and thousands of miners say the state's billionaire coal baron Jim Justice hasn't been consistent with payment.

US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

West Virginia coal miners are suing Republican Gov. Jim Justice along with other members of his family over allegations that a mining company owned by the Justices paid them in checks that could not be processed. The suit argues that the company, Bluestone Industries, Inc, violated the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of coal miner Kenneth Cozart on March 6 and amended on April 11 contends that Cozart received a paycheck on February 23 but was unable to deposit the payment. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District in the city of Beckley, the suit contends that Bluestone later wired Cozart his paycheck, resulting in a wire transfer fee.

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“The paycheck bounced, causing bad check fees to be charged against the plaintiff’s account,” reads the suit, according to WV Metro News. “Sometime thereafter, Bluestone wired the plaintiff wages owed him due to the bad check deposited on February 23, 2018. Plaintiff and other employees were charged a wire transfer fee for this payment.”

Between hundreds and thousands of West Virginia miners have joined the lawsuit alleging similar efforts to deposit paychecks which then bounced, part of a trend for Bluestone.

“On several prior occasions, the plaintiff was given paychecks for wages earned and deposited said checks in his account and those checks bounced, costing the plaintiff returned check fees. Bluestone would again wire the plaintiff his pay in the same manner as set forth above, again incurring wire transfer fees,” the suit argues.

The lawsuit names Bluestone more broadly along with Gov. Justice and his children, Jay and Jill Justice. James Miller, the secretary and treasurer for Bluestone, is also named.

Bluestone attorney John Hussell fired back last week, arguing that the company has taken steps to counter the problem.

“When we became aware of the issue, we immediately took action to ensure that all of the employees received their full pay,” Hussell said. “There was no interruption of their benefits and all of the employees were paid promptly after we became aware of this issue. We are happy to have these miners working with us and are committed to ensuring that they are paid for their hard work.”

Gov. Justice, the only billionaire in West Virginia and the state’s wealthiest man, became president of Bluestone in 1993, 23 years before he first ran for governor as a Democrat. He later switched party affiliations, proclaiming himself as a Republican during an August 2017 rally featuring President Trump. Justice has fought against anti-poverty programs as governor, in addition to dueling with teachers over stagnant wages earlier this year.

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A decade ago, Justice sold Bluestone to the Russian mining and metal company Mechel, OAO for $568 million. He later bought a number of the mines back for a mere $5 million amid a downward turn for the industry. That holds weight in a state where the loss of mining jobs has left many unemployed and in poverty, but the governor’s business ventures have also been a source of enduring controversy.

Justice’s mines extend beyond West Virginia and span across Appalachia. According to Climate Home News, the governor has used a “temporary cessation” loophole to keep many of his idle coal mines from being reclaimed, something that has ongoing implications for pollution and community health.

Violations of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulations have long dogged Justice’s mines and the official has historically failed to pay fines and taxes associated with his mines. The governor contributed $2.9 million of his own money to his gubernatorial campaign in 2016 while failing to pay some $2.6 million in delinquent federal mine safety penalties, according to a 2016 NPR investigation.

Ties to coal in West Virginia’s government extend far beyond Justice. West Virginia is one of 15 states with an environmental agency led by an official connected to an industry they now regulate. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Austin Caperton has coal industry ties stretching back to 1976. Caperton has also enjoyed a business relationship with Don Blankenship, a coal baron who has served prison time over a deadly disaster at one of his mines. Blankenship recently lost a bid for the U.S. Senate.