Lexington priest tells people to ‘get off their tush’ and help out-of-work coal miners
At a crowded church in Harlan on Monday, Father Jim Sichko of Lexington signed checks for about 200 out-of-work Kentucky miners to pay their electric bills in the wake of a coal company’s tumultuous bankruptcy.
The line of miners and their wives who showed up for Sichko’s event packed the hall of Holy Trinity Catholic Church and filed out into the parking lot. One by one, they presented their past-due bills.
The Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Blackjewel LLC., and its subsidiaries has left hundreds of Kentucky miners in financial turmoil. Their paychecks were clawed back earlier this month, and a second paycheck that was supposed to come Friday never arrived.
“These checks won’t bounce,” Sichko called out to the crowd.
Sichko, a prominent Lexington priest and Papal Missionary of Mercy, said he heard about the bankruptcy from a Harlan County resident and church-goer who asked him for his support.
As the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Sichko said he felt an immediate need to come to Harlan and help.
The $20,434.55 for the miners’ electric bills came out of Sichko’s personal account, he said.
“These men and their families, they sacrifice their lives. They had a good job, and now they’re out of luck,” Sichko said. “It’s my duty, it’s really my command, or God’s command of me, to come out and be with them and to assist them.”
“There’s nothing worse than preaching the word of God in a pulpit and not doing anything,” Sichko said.
In addition to clawed back paychecks, many miners said 401(k) contributions were taken out of their paychecks for months, but Blackjewel did not deposit the money in their 401(k) accounts.
Others said child support payments were also deducted but not deposited.
A Blackjewel spokesperson had no immediate response Monday to the workers’ allegations.
Josh Holbrook, who worked at a Blackjewel mine up Clover Lick near Cumberland in Harlan County, said the company has not provided any indication of when miners should expect to be paid for past work.
“It’s devastating,” Holbrook said. “When you lose one paycheck, you’re in trouble. When you lose two, you’re really hurting.”
Holbrook said he has three children, and is concerned about how he’ll pay for school supplies in coming weeks.
In a moment of financial uncertainty, he said Sichko’s help makes a big difference.
“I don’t worry about it, because I know the Lord will provide,” Holbrook said. “That’s just like this here — the Lord is providing.”
Blackjewel and its subsidiaries make up one of the largest coal producers in the nation. The company employs about 1,100 people in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as an additional 600 workers in Wyoming.
During a court hearing earlier this month, a company attorney confirmed that its miners in the Eastern U.S., including Kentucky, will not be reimbursed for their missing paychecks until Blackjewel has enough money to re-open its mines.
“We already have need here, this is a gut punch,” said Susie Mauinidis, a member of Holy Trinity who reached out to Sichko. “A prayer was made, and God sent an angel to help.”
The Harlan County Community Action Agency is also accepting donations through a GoFundMe page to help miners with mortgage payments, rent, utilities, food and other expenses.
At a gathering of miners in Whitesburg last week, Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said his office is working with attorneys at Mountain State Justice, a West Virginia law firm, to make miners a party in the bankruptcy proceedings.
Mosley asked miners to visit his office and fill out a creditor form, which his office can send to the law firm.
“There was a hearing about your claims, and no one was there to represent you,” said Ned Pillersdorf, a Kentucky attorney who is assisting Mosley and Mountain State Justice in the Blackjewel case. “We’re gonna change that.”
If 401(k) and child support payments were not made as promised by the company, a criminal investigation is warranted, Mosley said.
His office can help scan paycheck stubs and other payment histories for miners to provide the state attorney general or federal investigators, Mosley said.