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Married to coal: Markets driving cultural change for some WV families

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Amy Simmons’ husband still works in the coal mine, though the family is no stranger to layoffs. Amy Simmons’ husband still works in the coal mine, though the family is no stranger to layoffs.
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  • Many WV coal counties losing revenue

    Many WV coal counties losing revenue

    Monday, August 8 2016 10:15 AM EDT2016-08-08 14:15:05 GMT

    As Appalachian coal production continues its drastic decline, West Virginia’s coal-producing counties are  not only losing people as lifelong residents are forced to flee their homes in order to find work, but in many cases, they’re also relinquishing millions of dollars from their budgets.

    As Appalachian coal production continues its drastic decline, West Virginia’s coal-producing counties are  not only losing people as lifelong residents are forced to flee their homes in order to find work, but in many cases, they’re also relinquishing millions of dollars from their budgets.

The coal miner's wife is a cultural icon of West Virginia's coal communities — vigilant yet kind, caring but strong. 

But as the Appalachian coal industry struggles through its current decline, the traditional role of a coal miner's wife, as well as the social structures and culture in certain communities, could be pushed to change.

Thanks to the high pay most miners earn, single-income households in the coalfields are common. Now, as job losses become a more common occurrence due to market conditions, regulatory climate and other factors, miners' spouses must not only worry about the health and safety of their significant other, but also fret over what some say is a threat to their way of life.

While the state as a whole lags behind nationwide labor force participation rates, female labor participation rates run even lower and trail behind national averages. 

According to a 2010 analysis by West Virginia University's College of Business and Economics, the female labor participation rate was 48.2 percent. The male participation rate was 61.2 percent. The statewide data represents trends and data from communities where coal is not the primary industry. 

"It's still possible to earn a substantial salary with a high school diploma because of the coal mines, something unique to Appalachia, I believe," said Jessica Troilo, assistant professor of child development and family studies at West Virginia University. "Because the financial culture didn't have to change as it did for many families in the U.S. in the 1970s-1980s, cultural assumptions about work and providing for one's family (and who should do the providing) didn't have to change."

Troilo said she expects those cultural assumptions to begin to change. Outside of regional exceptions such as the coalfields, this cultural shift largely already has taken place. 

"Prior to the 1970s, men with only a high school diploma had the ability to earn a wage high enough to support a family," Troilo said. "Once the technology boom hit, this changed. Now, it's fairly commonplace to have families with two earners."

Hitting Families Hard

If projections are correct, change may come sooner than most would have guessed a few years ago. The EIA is projecting coal to remain relatively flat from 2012 to 2013. Specifically, western coals are projected to grow while Appalachian-sourced coal is projected to decline.

If demand for Appalachian coal declines, so goes the demand for one of the state's best ways to earn a wage and benefits. That doesn't even factor in the domino effects of decreasing income tax revenues and loss of severance tax opportunities.

One coal miner's wife who spoke to The State Journal said she estimates nearly 75 percent of the households in her community are made up of families where a single income provides for the whole family. 

Anyone acquainted with the coal industry knows this doesn't mean these families aren't doing well financially. 

According 2011 data from the National Mining Association, the average coal miner brings in about $85,051 per year in West Virginia. Other industries in the state averaged about $38,567 a year.

Amy Simmons, who lives just outside of Webster Springs, met her husband shortly after they graduated from high school. 

"He said he would never do it; he did," she said about her husband following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps to become a coal miner. 

"I'm very proud of him. They are heroes to me," Simmons said. "It lets us have vision insurance, dental and he's gets paid very well. It is a trade-off though. They risk their lives."

The pay, Simmons said, is more often than not better than her friends who completed college degrees. 

A 2006 Workforce West Virginia survey found workers in resource extraction in the state were far more likely to have retirement plans, medical insurance and sick leave. 

And while women can and do work in coal mines, an overwhelming majority of the work done in the mines is done by men. Backed by tradition, minimal alternative employment opportunities in the community and other factors, a lot of young coalfields women opt to stay home either after high school or postsecondary education.

Andrea Browning, 25, from Gilbert, used to work as an emergency medical technician before she married a coal miner. He was laid off in June but found a job this week. While Browning said she was excited about her husband going back to work, she said his new position likely won't pay him as much as his previous job as a surface mine foreman.

Browning also considered going back to school to complete her nursing degree. But that option became both cost- and time-prohibitive with her three children, two of whom are in school while the third is 14 months old. She also has a stepson. 

Being out of work, she said, took a toll on her husband and other coal miners. 

"These are proud men," Browning said. "They take pride in the fact they provide for their family. This is the first Christmas that I noticed that the 4-H in Gilbert was doing a toy drive for the kids whose parents were laid off coal miners. These men have never … we've always been able to provide for our families."

The fast-approaching Christmas season has been a source of anxiety this year for some laid-off miners who, in previous years, proudly showered their children with gifts. 

"He's been stressing about Christmas since August," Ashley Hamilton, of Glasgow, said of her husband, who still has his coal job. "Any other time, we didn't worry about it. We just go and get the kids just about anything they want and that was that. I can't even describe the feeling. I could cry right now talking about it, because it's hard." 

Hamilton is looking for part-time work because she and her husband worry about the future of the coal industry. She said she worries she'll miss important moments with her children.

"I don't even want to think about it," she said when asked about the possibility of another layoff. "… I love being home to raise my children. I'm very blessed to be able to stay home and raise my children."

Giving Up on Some Extras

The traditional household structure in the coalfields provided a parent at home, and the benefits of a higher-than-average income. Browning said her daughter, who hates riding the school bus, no longer gets the luxury of a ride to school. In addition to cutting back from two vehicles to one, Browning said her family is missing important childhood opportunities. 

"My daughter does majorettes. This year she didn't get to because, where he was laid off, we couldn't do it," she said. "She wanted to do cheerleading — and those are opportunities people see as an extra expense, but to me it really gives kids an opportunity to do new things, give them better self-esteem and do better in school."

Her stepson, she added, didn't get to do Cub Scouts this year either. 

Helping her children with their homework is another concern. In her trained profession as an EMT, Browning said she sometimes was required to do 24-hour shifts — a difficult amount of time to lock in a babysitter. 

Finding a daycare, she said, can be a problem. Since so many children in coal communities are either cared for by nearby parents or by a stay-at-home parent, daycare services are either difficult to find or unaffordable once a coal miner loses his job. 

"There's not a lot of two-income homes here," Browning said. "It's hard to find a daycare."

Simmons said Webster County faces a similar problem.

"I'm here for my kids," she said. "There's no daycare. we have no babysitters. … I wouldn't even begin to know where to look for a job for myself. It's enabled me to stay home and take care of my kid."

State unemployment payments max out just over $400 per week. For a family with multiple children, stretching that money to make ends meet will be tough, especially when they were accustomed to making much more. While some miners make it a point to pay off mortgages, car loans and other debts as early as possible, others factor bill paying into their monthly budgets.

As Hamilton put it, the hope is to find "work that pays what we're accustomed to having; you live on what your income is." 

Browning's husband, for example, made between $85,000 and $140,000 per year as a mining foreman. The family now has a $750 monthly truck payment, though their home has been fully paid. Previously full checking and savings accounts, Browning said, are dwindling.

"I don't see where he can replace (that salary) unless he went to college," she said, adding that even then, she doesn't see much opportunity for high-paying jobs in Mingo County outside of coal mining.  "We would prefer coal mining. That's pretty much all he knows. … He put food on the table for my three kids. That's something people need to know."

Browning said her family is not alone. She sees the strain of coal miners increasingly feeling like their way of life may be disappearing.

"These are proud men that have been able to provide for their families, and when they can't do it, it's almost like a depression," Browning said. "I think as an EMT, you notice things about people — people that never had a drinking problem, things like that. That's increasing."

Simmons said the worst part about layoffs is how suddenly they can hit. Her husband is working now, but he faced eight months of a layoff a few years ago. He was called before work to be told not to come in that morning.

"Here we are with two kids, a fairly new home and cars. It's scary, and it's a chance you have to take," she said.

The notion of the man of the household single-handedly bringing home wages to feed an entire family is why many of the men risk the dangers of coal mining.

"Most of our friends are coal mining families," Hamilton said. "These coal miners risk their lives every day, and they don't do it to be a hero or win an award or anything like that. They do it to provide a good life for their family so you don't have to live payday to payday."

Reversing Roles

The loss of the coal industry may even be temporarily or permanently reversing roles in some cases. Health care is one of the few fields outside of coal where residents can still earn high pay. 

Miranda Brunty lives just outside of Oceana. She graduated with an associate degree in applied science from Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. Her husband, Jaired, is a coal miner, but has been laid off for the past eight months.

"On the plus side, my husband has been at home with our son for most of his life," Brunty said. "It's nice not having to drag an infant out at all hours so a family member can watch him while we both work."

Brunty said she works because her home is within an hour of most of their "large extended family." Brunty said she and her husband were thinking ahead and kept bills "at a minimum in case one of us ever did ever experience a lay off or long illness." Thinking ahead saved a lot of financial headache for the Brunty family, but has changed aspects of their lives. 

"We have cut out the extras such as eating out, movies, updating our home, weekend getaways and vacations," Brunty said. "Things that having two incomes afforded us."

Brunty said the latest bout of lay-offs has been the worst. Coal employees, long accustomed to boom and bust cycles of the industry, widely fear the boom days may be over. 

"He is willing and able to work or even further his education," Brunty said. "The problem with the first is that there isn't any work for him. As far as furthering his education, he was enrolled in school to become a lineman, but we couldn't afford for him to make the daily commute.

"We were also afraid to get a loan. What if he still couldn't find a job?  That would just be another bill we'd have to worry about."

The culture of single-income families, Brunty said, is disappearing everywhere. The economy is accelerating that shift in West Virginia, she added, but she sees all companies cutting back. 

"They are making less people do more work and not hiring," Brunty said. "I don't think the coalfields are alone in the fact that there are mass layoffs and no work. However, I do believe that we don't have as many fallback options and aren't as willing to re-locate."

The idea of the stay-at-home parent, Miranda said, is something she thinks most would prefer. The coal industry, with its tendency to pay well, basically affords opportunities families in other communities may not receive.

"I don't think my community is any different than the rest of the country," she said. "I think most mothers would stay home with their children if they could and were willing to give up a certain lifestyle."

The Effect

The result of the shift from single-income to two-income homes was closely studied as women across the nation began to take their place in the work force decades ago. The transition to dual-income households, whether driven by social progressiveness or economic necessity, has come with some trade-offs.

"What we have seen, and continue to see, is an increased difficulty in balancing work and family stress, especially for women," Troilo said. "We're seeing increased stress for fathers, but women tend to report higher stress levels in trying to meet demands for being both a provider and parent for their families."

Those challenges, Troilo said, can result in stress levels that begin to take a psychological effect.

"For women who work in cultures that expect women to be primarily responsible for taking care of the home, women tend to then be responsible for what Arlie Hochschild referred to as the ‘Second Shift,'" Troilo said. "This refers to women working eight hours at work and then coming home and having to take care of the majority of household tasks. For some women, they're spending 15-18 hours a day working, both in and outside of the home."

Other potential issues arise as well. Shift work that limits spouses' time together increases divorce risk three to six times over. Troilo said evidence shows women who out-earn or reach higher status than husbands with traditional values are more at risk for domestic violence due to role expectations.

Is the shift to dual-income households in Appalachia an inevitable norm? Are there positives to a cultural shift leaders, citizens and industry are fighting?

"If an individual believes he/she has many resources and/or if this individual believes this is an opportunity for growth and change, then it can be a positive change, albeit a stressful one," Troilo said. "For individuals who believe the layoffs, and resulting changes within their families, represent negative changes and problems, then they will likely not believe there are upsides."

Simmons said she also sometimes faces criticism from people in her community.

"I think sometimes people look down on coal miners' wives," she said. They think they're stuck up or that they're just driving nice vehicles while their husbands go down in hell."

She worries that the way of life might disappear if coal continues to decline, but she tries to stay strong for her family.

"I try not to let it affect me — I don't want my kids or husband to see — I worry extremely, but I try to just not think about it," she said. 


Recently the United Mine Workers of America and state economic officials hosted sessions throughout the coalfields to offer training for displaced miners. At the time of the meetings, Brett Dillon, director of the UMWA's Career Center office in Beckley, said retraining efforts also are focusing on spouses and other members of the household old enough to work.

Rusell Frye, acting executive director of Workforce West Virginia, said one solution is use of a recently awarded $1.8 million grant for retraining workers.  

"We're currently training dislocated coal miners and the good part about this grant, that we specifically wanted, is that a family member can also be retrained," Frye told West Virginia lawmakers at a hearing centered on coal jobs in late November. "If the coal miner is dislocated and it affects the whole household's income, the spouse or children could go to school on these grants."

The grants offer $5,000 for retraining individuals and offsetting transportation and daycare opportunities.

Troilo said she thinks education will play a primary role in the potential cultural shift that could result from a decline in Appalachian coal.

"Education opens doors," she said. "We all have heard statistics about the benefits having a college degree (or a two-year degree) has on a person's financial stability. "For families, education may make all the difference in the world to families who are dealing with unemployment. Being able to find a position that can earn a sustainable wage with a high school diploma is difficult (outside of the coal industry), so education becomes essential."

Some think the problem may work out itself. A recent analysis by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy indicated that production declines may not translate to employment declines directly. Miner productivity is expected to fall, meaning producing the same levels of coal will take more man-hours. 

"In fact, there may be 10,000 more coal jobs in Central Appalachia in 2035 than there were in 2010, despite production falling by 100 million tons, because of falling productivity," wrote analyst Sean O'Leary. 

That analysis was just a quick look at one of the many factors playing into the future of the coal industry. As O'Leary points out, there are a lot of variables that could influence the future of coal. The industry's future will have significant implications, not just economically but culturally.

"The coal industry in West Virginia, particularly southern West Virginia, will be dramatically changing, and soon," O'Leary wrote. "That's why it is so important to ask questions like ‘what is the effect on employment?' and prepare for that transition."

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