“Times are hard for coal mining.”
That is the message Eddie Estep, president of Professional Contracting in Norton, Va., shared recently, speaking of the difficulty involved in getting miners back to work.
A small group of trainees and helpers busied themselves at the Norton offices for Professional Contracting.
One helper was Nathan Whistenhutt.
“You won’t find too many people that care as much as that man,” said Whistenhutt, a laid off miner, when speaking of Estep who recently came under fire recently after reports appeared of allegations that Estep had misled hundreds of miners into believing that an abundance of jobs in Harlan County and southwest Virginia were about to be available for furloughed miners.
“Coal mining is in my blood. If my job calls me back, I’ll go running to it,” said Whistenhutt.
He admitted to concerns about the current state of the industry, citing personal worries over a truck payment, car payment, refinanced home and sick child.
Another applicant, wishing to remain unnamed, was also quick to speak about the efforts he had seen from Estep. At the time of the interview, Estep was providing him with free “new miner” training. Estep had told this applicant that he could pay him later on, after he gets a job.
At the epicenter of attention concerning stories that reported 800 coal jobs were coming to the region, Estep sat down and talked candidly about the news reports he was seeing. He also touched on the swirling negativity and alleged rumors.
Though obviously weathered from setbacks and disappointments, Estep said he remained focused on helping people get jobs.
Alpha Coal based out of Bristol, Va., was previously thought to be linked to Professional Contracting and the new jobs. However, Alpha officials reported the company had no dialogue whatsoever with Estep about the use of the company’s idled facilities.
Estep said he originally was in communication with one primary investor who seemed ready to pull the trigger and open mines. This meant hiring workers. Plans were laid and strategies established, allowing him to estimate how many jobs would soon be available, said Estep.
The investor who requested Estep to serve as an application processor for the jobs decided to back off of his immediate plans, said Estep.
One investor pulling out, set off a chain-reaction of “unfortunate negative reports,” said Estep.
When word began to leak that an investor had pulled out, deflated hope began to spread across the region among many of the hopeful applicants. This led to concern and even suspicion, Estep admitted.
Some people went so far to allege that Estep had fabricated the story just to generate business for himself.
Though Estep acknowledged the rumor, he denied it of having any credibility.
“Only about 10-15 of the recent applicants needed and received training at Professional Contracting,” said Estep. He estimated that more than 2,700 of the applicants were already miners.
Most of those didn’t need training, he said.
Other allegations included accusations that Estep had charged a $35 processing fee for each applicant.
However, when contacted, the Virginia Better Business Bureau reported no negative reviews or complaints concerning Professional Contracting.
Estep denies charging processing or application fees.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Virginia and Kentucky Divisions of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) reportedly visited and questioned Estep.
Michael Abbott, public relations manager for the Virginia DMME, confirmed his agency contacted Estep to let him know that they would be monitoring the classes he teaches as a Virginia Board of Coal Mining Examiners certified instructor.
Such monitoring is conducted periodically to ensure that board certified instructors are meeting expectations regarding the content, amount and quality of training, he said.
“Given the level of activity at Professional Contracting over the last several weeks, we decided to monitor some of the classes,” said Abbott. “We are not aware of any violations committed by Mr. Estep.”
Estep said, “Lies, rumors and fabricated stories have probably led to investors feeling skittish. I mean, what’s negative about trying to get people jobs? That’s all we’re trying to do.”
Estep said he is aware of the limited employment opportunities currently in Kentucky, Virginia, Illinois and Indiana coalfields. He said he does contracting work in all of these states.
“Things are pitiful over in Harlan County,” said Estep. “Things are terrible over toward Middlesboro as well.”
Estep believes around 500 of the applicants came from Bell and Harlan counties. He said the downturn affects more than just the mining jobs, adding railroad workers, truckers and many other occupations will feel the affects.
“I haven’t seen it this bad,” said Estep. “This is like the 50s when coal was down and Kentuckians had to move to Michigan to find automobile factory jobs.”
Estep said he is still aggressively trying to find jobs for applicants. Some have already been placed and are getting paychecks. He predicted opportunities should pick back up, particularly around September.
“You can’t fill 800 jobs overnight,” said Estep.
Estep said he found work for 75 people, adding he believes the number will soon jump to 400 and then 800.
It is an uphill trek, he said.
Recent challenges and concerns have stifled Estep’s ability to help the immediate unemployment problems in Harlan and Bell counties.
However, others such as Harlan County Judge-Executive Joseph Grieshop, are also carrying the torch of hope.
Grieshop acknowledged that immediate jobs may not come as a direct result of Estep, but added he remains optimistic and feels jobs are coming.
Middlesboro Daily News | Civitas Media, LLC
Reach Shane Pippin at firstname.lastname@example.org