June 27, 2016

Coal Troubles Hit Railroad Workers

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Coal production has reached a 30-year low. As coal companies declare bankruptcy, hundreds of miners in the Rocky Mountain West have lost their jobs.

But it is not just coal miners or coal towns who are affected. Railway traffic is largely coal traffic in the West, moving coal from mines in Wyoming to power plants. More than 5,000 railroad employees have been furloughed or laid off as a result of the drop in coal production, spreading far beyond the Powder River Basin.

Adam Fotta in Grand Junction, Colorado is one of those furloughed employees. Being a conductor and engineer for BNSF Railways was “the best job I ever had,” he said. It was a steady job, with good benefits.

“It finally felt like we were middle class,” Fotta said.

As coal production fell, Fotta “chased the work”, moving around Wyoming and Colorado. He says when oil prices and production fell, the trains stopped carrying oil and layoffs weren’t far behind. Then, he says, the coal traffic dropped off. Fotta said he and his wife got the last U-Haul out of Douglas, Wyoming to move back to Grand Junction.

Furloughs are part of life for rail workers, especially when commodities like coal fall, Fotta said. But this furlough has been particularly tough for Fotta. His wife was diagnosed with cancer the same day he was laid off from the railroad.

“It was just like, ‘this is bottom’,” he said. “No job, wife’s sick.”

He isn’t sure that coal traffic will ever pick up again.

“I’m hopeful to going back to work somewhere for the railroad,” Fotta said. “And getting my life back, my debt paid down and getting my wife healthy. That’s all I want.”

Video for this story provided by Dan Garrison, Rocky Mountain PBS