From Housekeepers To Railroad Conductors, Coal’s Crash Takes Its Toll

July 29, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

A line of idled train engines stretches to the horizon at the Donkey Creek rail yard, outside of Gillette, Wyoming. June 1, 2016. (Photo by Stephanie Joyce, Wyoming Public Media)

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The coal industry’s recent downturn is casting ripples throughout the economy in the West. Small railroad towns are dealing with the impact. In Wyoming, the unemployment rate is climbing faster than any other state in the country—and it’s not just miners who are struggling.

Just before midnight on a recent evening, Chris Loman was still busy checking people in and out of the Oak Tree Inn in Gillette, Wyoming. She asked one guest about his wife and ribbed another about a past visit.

“They’re like family to me,” Loman said. “And I am to them.”

The Oak Tree Inn is not a typical hotel. It has private rooms, key cards and fresh towels, but most of its guests work for BNSF, one of the nation’s largest railroads. Until recently, the entire hotel was under contract to the railroad.

On a tour, administrative assistant Tammy Burke pointed out the many unusual features of the hotel that arose from that arrangement, starting with the enormous communal kitchen where the railroaders can cook. A few railroaders were lounging in the TV room and working out in the railroaders-only gym, but by and large the place was empty.

“The trickle down has affected us big time,” Burke said.

The collapse of the coal industry has hurt businesses like the Oak Tree Inn, which are dependent on the railroads. In 2015, shipping coal generated almost 20 percent of railroad revenues. But in the first quarter of 2016, coal shipments were down 33 percent. Thousands of railroad workers have been furloughed or laid off.

Shelly Lively is one of the lucky ones still working. She runs trains from Edgemont, South Dakota to the coal mines in Gillette and back, and stays at the Oak Tree Inn on her rest breaks.

While sipping coffee from a travel mug, she said anyone who hasn’t been working for the railroad for more than a decade simply isn’t working, unless they’re willing to relocate to California or Texas. She pointed to the hundreds of idled locomotives parked on the tracks outside of Gillette.

“Miles and miles and miles of engines,” she said.

Coal shipments have rebounded slightly in recent weeks, but they are nowhere close to their previous levels.

“It's affecting everybody,” Lively said. “Because we're not spending any money. When railroaders don’t spend money and coal guys don’t spend money, the economy doesn’t move.”

At the Oak Tree, it means less work for employees. Both housekeeping and the maintenance staff have had their hours cut significantly.

“Pretty much every month [I] have to sell something to make ends meet,” said Mike Mitchell, a former oil worker who now does maintenance at the hotel.

Mitchell’s daughter is heading into her senior year of high school, and he doesn’t want to uproot his family.

“I’d like her to finish here,” he said. “But if we can’t afford to stay, you’ve gotta go where there’s work. Full time work.”

Like many other people in energy towns, Mitchell is not from Gillette but moved there for the job opportunities. Without any, he sees little reason to stick around. He’s started looking at jobs in Denver, where he grew up.

And Mitchell isn’t the only one who is thinking about opportunities elsewhere. Wyoming has already lost nearly 3,000 service sector jobs in the last year.

“The tidal wave is just starting,” Mitchell said.

Inside Energy is a collaborative journalism initiative among public media with roots in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota. It focuses on stories where people and power intersect, and how that intersection impacts neighbors, communities, regions and the country at large. Find out more at Inside Energy's website.