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W.Va. state government focuses on helping unemployed miners find new careers

By George Hohmann

For the WVPA

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If you are a coal miner who has lost your job, exhausted your unemployment benefits and haven’t gone back to work, the state wants to contact you soon.WorkForce West Virginia, the state’s one-stop shop for employment resources, is preparing to launch a pilot program aimed at identifying, contacting and assisting coal miners who have run out of unemployment benefits and haven’t found a job.

“We just want to make sure they are aware of the opportunities,” said Russell Fry, acting executive director of WorkForce West Virginia.

“We want to look at what their needs are right now,” said Valerie Comer, WorkForce’s deputy executive director. “Can we handle those needs in our agency? Do we need to refer them to another agency? What programs do we need to get them through so we can eliminate barriers to training?

“Are they ready to go to training right now or do they already have a degree or certificate or high skill level where they’re ready to work and we can assist them in finding a job? There are many directions they can go, based on the individual’s needs.”

Former coal miner Gregg Bragg and his wife, Katie, who live in Wayne County, opened their own shop, Braggable Hair Designs, in Kermit in August 2015.
Former coal miner Gregg Bragg and his wife, Katie, who live in Wayne County, opened their own shop, Braggable Hair Designs, in Kermit in August 2015.

Fry said, “The ones we want to find are the ones that maybe just aren’t aware of what’s out there who, with a little bit of help with some of their soft skills, maybe some help with resumes or job applications or whatever we can do — training programs — availability of different jobs — anything we can provide, we want to make sure we get out there to them.”

WorkForce West Virginia receives about $12 million annually from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to serve adult, youth, and unemployed workers.

In addition, WorkForce has received $13 million in federal funds over the last three years to provide training and other programs for unemployed and long-term unemployed workers and $15 million over the last four years specifically to help unemployed miners and their families.

Gregg Bragg, 44, and Stanley Stewart, 37, are miners who got laid off, decided to change careers, and took advantage of the opportunities.

Former coal miner Stanley Stewart, 37, enrolled at West Virginia State University in January 2015. He’s a senior with a cumulative 3.91 grade-point average. He will student teach in January and is on track to graduate in May 2017 as a high-school biology teacher.
Former coal miner Stanley Stewart, 37, enrolled at West Virginia State University in January 2015. He’s a senior with a cumulative 3.91 grade-point average. He will student teach in January and is on track to graduate in May 2017 as a high-school biology teacher.

Bragg and his wife, Katie, who live in Wayne County, went to barber school. They graduated after nine and a half months of training and opened their own shop, Braggable Hair Designs, in Kermit last August.

“We probably average two new clients every day,” Bragg said. “We’re really pleased with how the business is growing. We’re starting to get back on our feet a little. It’s been a long road.”

The Braggs each received $5,000 grants from the state to help pay for their education plus $20 each for every day they went to class. “We would never have made it without them,” Gregg said of the grants and stipends.

Stewart, of Boone County, had five semesters of college under his belt when he went to work at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2001. He was working at a mine in Boone County in May 2014 when it was shut down. He started looking for work and learned of a job fair for dislocated miners in Madison.

He also heard that the state would help pay unemployed miners to go back to school. “That struck a bell with me because for years I told the guys that worked for me that if I ever got the opportunity, I would return to school.

“I could see where the mining industry was going,” Stewart said. “I always dreamed about getting back into college. I went to that job fair. They were pushing welding and truck-driving pretty hard. But I was curious about actually going back to college.”

Stewart took a required aptitude test and ended up returning to college rather than a trade school “to try to change my life” and “do something I want to do.

“It was a scary idea — the idea of coming back to college after so many years,” he said. “No. 1, how can you financially support yourself? I’ve got a wife and two kids and I was always the breadwinner. Plus being out of school for pretty well a decade and a half — I figured I’d forgotten most of everything.

“You get in a rut working underground. It’s probably this way everywhere. After a while you start believing that maybe you can’t do anything else. The idea of changing that is intimidating. But I went ahead and took that plunge anyway and I’m doing well so far.

“I’m proud to come back and still be able to succeed academically after all these years and I am grateful for the opportunity.”

Stewart enrolled at West Virginia State University in January 2015. He’s a senior with a cumulative 3.91 grade-point average. He will student teach in January and is on track to graduate in May 2017 as a high-school biology teacher.

He made a six-figure salary working underground. He expects to earn $38,000 to $42,000 a year as a beginning teacher.

Stewart, like the Braggs, received a $5,000 grant and receives the $20 daily expense stipend. The grant “really is what propelled me into going back to college — I said, ‘That might enable me to make it,’” he recalled.

Since using the grant, Stewart has dipped into savings and taken out student loans. The Braggs have spent savings and borrowed from parents.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a prepared statement, “Providing opportunities for our workers to get training or retraining has been — and continues to be — one of my top priorities as governor. We have state and federal funds available through a variety of programs, including Let’s Train WV, Learn and Earn, and these long-term training grants, and we want to be sure people use that money to help shape their futures and the future of West Virginia.

“We’re committed to diversifying the state’s economy, particularly in southern West Virginia,” Tomblin said. “These job-training opportunities are a key part of that.”

WorkForce’s databases show that about 2,100 former coal miners have run out of unemployment benefits since 2010. There’s no record of wages being paid to more than 1,000 of those individuals since their unemployment benefits expired.

“We may find a lot of these individuals have retired,” Fry said. “We may find some that are on disability. And we may find some that have died or left the state.”

Whatever the number, it is likely to grow.

Over the last six months — October 2015 through March 2016 — over 5,000 coal miners applied for unemployment benefits, Fry said. Those benefits typically expire after 26 weeks, so thousands of jobless miners will drop off the rolls in coming months.

“That’s why we’re so concerned,” Fry said. “And we still have to look into the future. What are we going to have (in future years)?”

Some will go back to work and some will go into a training program but some won’t find a job. “They’re the ones we’ll be looking at,” Fry said. “I think it’s going to be a major task to seek out and provide services to everyone.”

Fry has appointed Comer to lead a team to work on the pilot project. Two full-time and two part-time WorkForce staffers are assisting her.

Comer said individuals who sign up for unemployment benefits also are entered into WorkForce’s database as looking for work. When WorkForce provides an individual with services or programs, that information is added to the database.

Under the pilot program, “the first thing we’re looking at is, are they currently working?” Comer said. “If that’s ‘no,’ then we’re going to look to see, have they gone back to training? If that’s a ‘no,’ then we’re going to send them a letter telling them that we’re going to reach out to talk to them about training programs or other programs they might be interested in.

“We can send emails. We can send letters to their home. And then we will follow up with a phone call.”

If WorkForce finds that you’re a coal miner, exhausted your unemployment benefits and don’t have a job — but you’re enrolled in a training program — “we might not put you on the list to be called first” but “we will follow up with you to make sure the program you’re in is OK, to make sure you don’t have any other issues, that there aren’t any other services you need.

“But we really want to catch those who have exhausted unemployment and who are not working, who are not in a training program, who are not receiving any other services. Those are the ones we feel have been lost along the way.”

Because the effort is new and a first-of-its-kind for WorkForce, it is subject to change, Fry said.

To evaluate the results, WorkForce will start with the more than 2,000 coal miners who have run out of unemployment benefits since 2010. The agency will attempt to contact each of the more than 1,000 to whom no wages have been paid to determine their situation “and go from there into what services we can provide.

“At some point after that we’ll have to evaluate the services and the numbers and determine the success rate,” he said. “We will track everything we do. We will have a record as to all services provided and the results per services.

“If it’s a good project and works, we could identify that this pilot would be something we would use for more than coal miners,” Fry said. “Right now they seem to be the hardest hit.”

WorkForce West Virginia has the largest online database of job seekers and job openings in the state.

Fry said that historically, about 50 percent of the people who register with the agency do get a job. Fry agreed that percentage is a strong incentive to register.

“I know I would take the chance if I was batting zero,” he said.

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