The Gillette Workforce Center had a front row seat for the town’s coal woes.
The office has cream-colored walls, decorated with motivational posters and pictures of coal mines. Vermona Petersen is the manager of the center, which helps people find a new job.
“At the height of the layoffs last year, we were seeing between 250 and 300 people a day,” she said.
Wyoming coal mines laid off more than 450 workers last March amid financial troubles exacerbated by low natural gas prices and debt.
Coal prices have risen since then and major coal companies Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources have come out of bankruptcy. Nearly 300 of the coal mining jobs are also back in the Powder River Basin, according to the Mining Safety and Health Administration.
Petersen said the number of people passing through her office is down to about a third of the level when layoffs were so rampant last year, as more employers in and outside the mines are looking to hire. Job seekers aren’t just from coal, she added, but also from oil and gas; another industry struggling amid low prices the last few years.
“When the oil and gas industry started their layoffs, it was before the coal but that’s had a huge impact on our community as well,” she said.
Kevin Sisel was laid off from the oil and gas industry last April.
He said there weren’t any jobs in the area and he had to leave to find work in Indiana. For five months, he worked out-of-state while his family was back in Gillette. He said he only saw them about two weeks during that time.
“It made it real difficult missing sporting events, dance, whatever the kids were involved with,” he said. “I missed the lot of it.”
His wife Kayla and their two children, aged 8 and 9, did not move with Kevin. The kids were in school, Kayla had a job, and they couldn’t sell their house in a glutted housing market.
“It was rough,” Kayla said. “I mean, having to stay here with the kids, just them and I. There was a lot of tears. It was hard. ”
About 330 people left Gillette between July 2015 and July 2016, or about 1 percent of the population, according to U.S Census Bureau estimates.
Kevin said he knows people who are still trying to pay off a house there even after moving elsewhere for work. He gambled with the job market and moved home, eventually getting a job at Peabody Energy’s Caballo coal mine. But that mine only hired 11 more people between the slump last spring to this last winter.
Geno Palazzari, spokesman for the city of Gillette, said mines’ peak employment rates probably aren’t coming back, but people may still stick around, helping the community move forward.
“Now that people have been here and have kids and grandkids here, they don’t want to go,” he said. “If they’ve left, they’ve come back. And so we have maybe a little bit more of a mobile workforce than they’ve had in the past.”
Wyoming’s perennial problem with attracting new industries to the state — and evening out the boom and bust cycle — is its low population. Palazzari said having more available workers may help.
Gillette is working with two other cities to form a “new growth alliance” to market their area to new businesses, Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said. She’s also bullish on the new research projects in the city to study how to clean up coal and keep it out of the air.
“We have been known as the energy capital of the nation,” she said. “I believe with all this technology and research coming in, we’re going to be the energy research capital of the nation.”
Many in coal country are praising Trump for his regulatory roll-back, but the administration’s proposed budget would slash funding for energy research like clean coal, as well funding for other city projects.
Still, the mayor, like many others in Gillette, saw the Trump victory as a win for coal and she hopes other infrastructure projects and a steady coal industry will allow the local economy to even out.
“If we can even just get to stable, rather than the ups and down; just one straight line, even if it isn’t up there,” she said. “I think that’s just what people would like is just stability. And I do think we will get there.”
- Listen to one coal miner’s story after he got laid off at a Peabody mine.
- Hear about optimism in Wyoming mines after coal prices and production got a boost and Donald Trump was elected president.
- Check out our series on the future of coal.