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Wyoming: 31 Blackjewel workers still owed $164,000

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CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - A bankrupt coal company has failed to pay 31 workers in Wyoming nearly $164,000 in wages and benefits, state officials said.

The number of workers still owed money is likely much higher but few have filed claims with the state out of fear of retaliation, they said.

Milton, West Virginia-based Blackjewel owed over 500 Wyoming workers unpaid wages and benefits when the company filed for bankruptcy July 1 and closed the gates at its Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in the Powder River Basin.

The company also owed furloughed employees in Appalachia.

Many of the Wyoming employees have gone back to work since Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a Navajo Nation business, bought the two Wyoming mines.

Meanwhile, just 33 of the hundreds of Blackjewel workers in Wyoming have filed claims with the state Department of Workforce Service for compensation from Blackjewel.

Fear of retaliation while they awaited word whether they would go back to work discouraged many from filing claims, department deputy administrator Kelly Roseberry told Wyoming lawmakers Monday.

"They think that they will get paid somehow, someway, and they don't want to stir the pot," Roseberry said.

Wyoming law doesn't protect workers who file wage claims from employer retaliation, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.

Also, employees must no longer work for a company to pursue a wage claim against it. Blackjewel workers for months didn't know their official employment status.

The Wyoming Department of Work! force Services has investigated 31 of the 33 claims filed. Blackjewel has provided the state with proof of paying workers just $56,800 of the over $200,000 owed in the claims, according to the department.

"Blackjewel attorneys assert that additional payments have been made but no official supporting documentation has been provided," the department stated in a letter to Wyoming lawmakers.

Blackjewel did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

About 500 former employees have joined a federal court complaint against Blackjewel alleging the company withheld wages between June 24 and July 1. The company agreed to pay almost $800,000 in outstanding wages to avoid further litigation but the amount doesn't include unpaid retirement benefits, health savings account dues or accrued paid time off.

Article Topic Follows: Wyoming

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