Jobless miners face distressing choices, uncertain futures

They must live on far less or move away

Lexington Herald-LeaderJune 16, 2013 

Shawn Slone chased diminishing coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky for years before he and his wife, Karin, decided that their future lay somewhere other than Knott County.

After their daughter, Cydnee, 13, collected her academic awards May 16, the family drove to Alabama, where Shawn landed a job as a foreman at an underground coal mine.

Slone, 36, became a miner 10 years ago — the fifth generation of his family to work in the mines.

He worked steadily for years and became a foreman, but he was laid off in 2009. For the next three years, he held jobs at a number of mines in Eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia as the regional coal economy slid.

At one point, he was driving two hours each way daily to work; his wife remembers him falling asleep on the couch more than once with a plate of food in his lap.

He was laid off two months after starting at one Virginia mine. His next job at a mine in Perry County disappeared after four months, just before Thanksgiving last year.

Slone went from bringing home $2,000 every two weeks to bringing home $700, which didn't cover their house payment. The couple drained his 401(k) retirement fund to pay off bills, taking a big penalty, Karin Slone said.

They talked about him trying to find another coal job in Eastern Kentucky, but they were convinced it would be only a temporary fix. And there are few other good-paying jobs in the region, Karin Slone said.

They worried about paying the bills and saving money for their kids' college education.

"We can't do it here," Karin told her husband.

So Shawn applied online for a job at a Jim Walters Resources mine eight hours away and got it. He started work in late March, but Karin Slone and the couple's children, Cydnee and Zander, 7, stayed in Knott County to finish the school year.

Shawn Slone said he has been told that jobs at the Alabama mine are more secure than in Eastern Kentucky because it produces metallurgical-grade coal, used in making steel.

The Slones have deep roots in Eastern Kentucky. Their home in Knott County sits on land that has been in Karin's family for 200 years.

Karin Slone said she cried about the move, about leaving family and about missing the view from their porch on a hillside near Hindman, where she had imagined someday sitting and watching her grandchildren play.

"Financially and for our kids, we knew it was the right thing to do," she said of the move. "But to leave everything you know, that was a hard decision."

Karin Slone said there's little reason to think coal will rebound in Eastern Kentucky. There should have been greater efforts to diversify the economy earlier, she said.

"People around here thought coal was going to be here forever and they didn't have a backup plan," she said. "It's time to see past that."

When underground miner Michael Teegardin was grossing $1,600 to $1,700 a week, he bought a Nissan 350Z sports car, a truck and an all-terrain vehicle.

After he was laid off in July 2012 from Sapphire Coal, though, his income dropped to $712 in unemployment every two weeks. Teegardin, 21, of Hindman, let lenders repossess the vehicles.

He had worked at underground mines for three years before he was laid off. He looked for a job at mines in several counties, with no luck. After nearly a year out of work, Teegardin landed a job with the county road crew beginning June 10. His father, a county magistrate, told him about the job, he said.

Teegardin said his starting pay would be about $8 an hour — $10 to $15 an hour less than he made as a miner. "It's a pretty hard lick," he said of the cut.

Gary Brent Slone, 29, had worked at an underground mine in Knott County for 11 years before he was laid off in December.

He received one job offer, but it was at a mine 90 miles away and paid $9.75 an hour less than he'd been making.

Slone decided to get by on unemployment and try to get a job closer to home. While he waits, he has volunteered to help remodel the small Baptist church he attends.

Slone's two daughters qualified for a state medical card, but he and his wife have no coverage. He receives $1,424 a month in unemployment payments, but insurance to cover his entire family would have cost more than $1,600 a month, he said.

It's worrisome to be without insurance. "You never know what's going to happen — a car wreck, break your leg, whatever," Slone said.

Bill Estep: bestep@herald-leader.com (606) 678-4655.Twitter: @billestep1.John Cheves: jcheves@herald-leader.com (859) 231-3266.Twitter: @BGPolitics.Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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