Sidney Coal Co. President Charlie Bearse was expressing an opinion that many in these mountains secretly share. Problem was, he put that opinion in writing.
“It is common knowledge that the work ethic of the Eastern Kentucky worker has declined from where it once was,” Bearse wrote to the state mining board. Bad attitudes and drug abuse, he argued, were affecting attendance “and, ultimately, productivity.”
Bearse’s appeal to the board: Relax an English-only policy in the mines so he could bring in Hispanic workers.
U.S. companies are constantly complaining they need migrant workers to do the low-paying, menial tasks Americans just won’t. But at $18 an hour and up, plus benefits, these are some of Appalachia’s best jobs.
Here in Hatfield-McCoy country — where Hispanics make up less than 1 percent of most counties’ populations — Bearse’s comments were fighting words.
“They bring Mexicans in here, they’ll get ’em killed,” disabled miner Homer Black said over the rumble at the company’s massive coal preparation plant. “These people ain’t going to put up with it.”
Added 23-year-old Shannon Gibson, who recently took the state test for the “green card” that would allow him to work underground: “They’re just looking for more workers who’ll work cheaper and work longer.”
Comments made before string of tragedies
Bearse has acknowledged that his choice of words could have been better. And his timing couldn’t have been worse.
Less than two weeks after Bearse made his request in late December, an explosion at the Sago Mine in neighboring West Virginia killed 12 men. By the time his proposal became public earlier this month, another five coal miners had died, and the public was clamoring for safety reform. A roof fall in Kentucky this past week brought the death toll so far this year to 20, all but one of them in Appalachian mines.
Bearse’s comments have also forced people in this rugged, oft-neglected region to face some hard economic and social realities.
A generation of layoffs and outmigration has left a suddenly booming industry with a shortage of experienced miners. Labor officials put that deficit at more than 6,000 miners alone in West Virginia and Kentucky — the No. 2 and 3 coal-producing states.
To make matters worse, decades of backbreaking work in dusty, gassy coal seams — some so low miners spend entire shifts on their bellies — have left many older miners dependent on painkillers. Many of their children and grandchildren, facing the dim prospect of unemployment or dead-end jobs, have become addicted, too.
“For all kinds of reasons, the labor pool is smaller,” said Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor.
But United Mine Workers union organizer Tim Miller said that’s nonsense, calling the purported miner shortage “the biggest farce out there right now.”
No shortage of applicants
In the past two years, the state of Kentucky has issued nearly 13,000 “green cards” — inexperienced miner’s work permits. During a recent week, Kentucky labor officials counted 7,187 people actively seeking coal mining work, 5,390 of whom claimed prior mining experience. (There were another 1,146 people actively seeking mine employment in the three coal counties just across the West Virginia border.)
Miller, one of the mining board’s seven members, said there are 1,400 laid-off union miners in western Kentucky alone who could go to work today. He echoed the sentiments of many who believe the industry is simply hoping to exploit Hispanics and drive down wages.
“They want people who don’t have the ability to protect themselves,” Miller said.
“If they can flood the market with Hispanic workers, if they can get away with paying a guy $8 and hour, the next guy will be willing to work for $7.”
That’s what was going through Gibson’s mind earlier this month as he stood in the cold outside the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing branch in Coal Run, where 32 men — some from as far away as Ohio and Illinois — turned out to take the test.
The idled autobody worker from Elkhorn City passed easily. But three days and several dozen mine calls later, he was standing in the unemployment line — his shiny laminated green card tucked in his wallet.
“They don’t want to hire inexperienced miners, but they’ll bring Mexicans in here to let them work,” he said angrily. He said the so-called miner shortage was “bull crap.”
Language barrier battle
But wanting to work and being able to pass a mining exam — or a drug test, for that matter — are two different things, the coal association’s Caylor and others in the industry say.
Bearse said more than a third of his 800 employees have been hired in the past year. Sidney, a subsidiary of No. 4 U.S. coal producer Massey Energy of Richmond, Va., has recruited miners from out West and advertised as far away as Charlotte, N.C., but still can’t fill its rosters.
So Bearse turned to Hispanic workers already on his payroll and asked if they had a dozen or so relatives or friends who might consider taking part in a “pilot program.” He emphasized they would get the same wages and benefits as the company’s other miners.
“It would be administered by qualified bilingual supervisors,” he said in a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press. “They would need to have legal worker status.”
Miller said this is an issue of safety, not immigration.
“What if that interpreter is the one who gets covered up in a rock fall?” he said. “I’m outside of the mine screaming they’ve got smoke coming their way and they don’t have any idea what I’m trying to say. They’re just sitting ducks.”
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issues safety regulations in English and Spanish, and many states have no language requirement for miner certification. West Virginia requires prospective miners to pass a written test in English. Kentucky’s law says the mining board “may” refuse to examine anyone who “cannot readily understand the written English language or cannot express himself intelligently in English.”
Idea rebuffed before
Bearse has taken a lot of heat for his proposal. But he’s not the first to float this idea.
In 2001, a labor broker came to the mining board with a request to import 1,000 Mexican and Chilean workers for two unnamed coal companies.
“He made the same claims: That all Kentucky miners were on drugs and didn’t work hard, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” said Tony Oppegard, a former attorney for the state mine-safety agency.
The mining board rejected the request for safety reasons.
Bearse’s new request has been tabled by the board for the moment. But in the meantime, he’s been doing damage control, writing open letters to area newspapers calling eastern Kentucky coal miners “as good as they come.”
Mine union president Cecil Roberts said Hispanic immigrants already are being exploited in Western mines, and this is merely an attempt to do the same in the East. He called Sidney Coal’s request “the equivalent of an obscene gesture” to Appalachian miners.
But some said his earlier statements were just the cold, hard truth.
Waiting outside the mine-safety office for a friend, Daniel Mullins of Berwind, W.Va., spat tobacco juice into a Coke bottle and told of a coal company where only seven out of 100 applicants could pass a drug screening.
“The younger generation ain’t nothing,” said Mullins, who installs ventilation systems in underground mines. “They’re spoiled.”
But even he doesn’t think things are so bad that the mines need to be importing workers.
A few miles down U.S. 23, Jorge Almaraz raced around the kitchen at El Poncho — one of three Mexican restaurants in the county seat of Pikeville, population 6,500. A gold Jesus-head medallion swung from Almaraz’s neck as he stirred a bubbling pot of refried beans.
The 39-year-old cook has a wife and four teenage children back in Toluca, Mexico, to support. If he went into the mines, he’d expect to be paid as much as the “Americanos.”
But Almaraz has no interest in a job “abajo” — underground. One green card is enough for him.
“I prefer the kitchen.”