Coal Jobs Prove Lucrative, but Not for Those in the Mines

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“These small outfits, if you didn’t produce, you were gone,” he said. “You couldn’t say nothing. You had to take what they gave you.”

Mr. Combs was laid off at least five more times before finally, in 2014, his doctor told him his body was giving out to black lung disease. He now lives with his wife on Social Security and pension payments.

“None of them are worth that,” he said of the coal executives. “They get that money on the backs of the men working here.”

The steep executive salaries have come despite dismal recent performances by coal companies that have driven a string of former giants into bankruptcy. Coal executives misread the market in China, racing to develop mines there only to see demand falter, which also caused American coal exports to slump. At home, they have been unable to stem a slide in the domestic market, driven by cheaper natural gas.

Despite those woes, top coal executives have continued to draw hefty rewards.

Peabody paid its executive team around $75 million from 2012 to 2014, according to its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In the same period, the company lost nearly $2 billion.

Photo

Bob Cox, center, chatting with other retired miners in Beaver Dam, Ky. Mr. Cox worked in Appalachian mines for 35 years before losing his last coal mining job in 2002. Credit Harrison Hill for The New York Times

In 2016, Alpha Natural Resources secured a $12 million bonus package for its executives during bankruptcy proceedings, saying they should be compensated for navigating the complexities of the process. The previous year, the company lost $1.3 billion.

Seven Arch Coal executives received about $8 million in bonuses three days before the company filed for bankruptcy in January 2016, seeking to cut $4.5 billion in debt. An Arch Coal spokeswoman, Logan Bonacorsi, said that the company had consistently given out bonuses in the first quarter of the year, and that they were driven mainly by safety and environmental performance metrics.

Some workers at Arch Coal sites, including some truck drivers, are employed by third-party businesses, and the company had “no insights into wage rates” at those companies, she said.

Vic Svec, a Peabody spokesman, said that average industry wages were lower than those at Peabody, whose coal miners “can earn wages and bonuses nearing six figures per year.” He said the majority of stock bonuses would be shared by employees below the company’s executive ranks, though he declined to give a detailed breakdown.

An Alpha Natural Resources spokesman, Steve Hawkins, declined to comment.

Coal miners face other woes. Mr. Trump has proposed eliminating funding for programs that support laid-off miners in Appalachia. Congress, however, reached a last-minute deal this week to finance health benefits for more than 20,000 retired miners — miners whose employers have long gone bankrupt, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab.

“You don’t have to guess who they think most of,” said Bob Cox in Beaver Dam, Ky., who worked in Appalachia’s mine tunnels for 35 years before losing his last coal mining job in 2002, at age 56. Mr. Cox has an early stage of black lung disease.

“I feel like I gave them the best part of my life, and they paid me — guess the way it was supposed to be,” he said. “But in the end, it didn’t turn out in my favor.”

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Source: New York Times

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