The only coal mine in Hopkins County shut down temporarily Monday because of the coronavirus, while a factory with confirmed COVID-19 cases reopened.
Alliance Resource Partners announced in a statement that it is “temporarily ceasing coal production at all of its Illinois Basin mines.”
This includes the Cardinal Mine west of Madisonville. But the stoppage is due more to economics than health concerns.
“It appears... disruptions will continue for the immediate near future,” the statement said.
The stoppage is scheduled to last through Wednesday, April 15. But Alliance Coal noted that could change “based upon the business needs of our customers,” and production actually could resume sooner.
The closing surprised some miners arriving at Warrior Coal for the day. An employee at the mine office said the decision was made before all employees could be notified.
As the mine closed, General Electric Aviation prepared to reopen after a prolonged weekend of deep cleaning where three shifts were missed. But that was too late for several employees.
“We have two more confirmed cases,” IUE-CWA Local President Andy Blades said. That puts the total inside GE Aviation at three. The company did not confirm that number, but said “several” cases were confirmed.
“After coordinating with healthcare experts, we determined it is safe to continue operations at the site and second shift employees reported to work as normal Monday afternoon,” spokesperson Gina Dougherty said in an evening email.
“Our members are scared,” shop steward Bridget Jones said during a midday union conference call. “We are worried that GE’s not taking all steps to necessarily keep us safe.”
GE Aviation confirmed Friday that one employee tested positive for COVID-19. Blades added that several co-workers were in quarantine. But Monday, he said the company won’t tell him how many.
“A lot of test results are not back,” Blades said. “The company needs to supply that information.”
While Blades seemed to know who the initial patient is, Jones said her supervisor would not provide her with a name.
“There was no way for me to know if I had came in contact with that person,” Jones said. She added that she had “no faith” in GE Aviation’s effort to track down people who had contact with the patient.
“How would management know if I talked with this person or walked by this person, or even touched anything that this person had touched?” Jones said.
Dougherty said Monday that the employee contacting process is complete.
Yet at the same time, the union called on GE Aviation Monday to use open space in all its U.S. plants to fight the coronavirus.
“Our members want to produce ventilators and be part of the team that slays this,” Jones said. She added the plant on Nebo Road has 13,000 square feet of available space.
Daugherty said the company is “working around the clock” to increase production of medical equipment. But her answer focused on the health care branch of GE, while adding, “we continue to explore additional opportunities.”
Increasing capacity after confirming coronavirus cases leads to further safety questions.
“It’s a challenge that we face,” Blades said.
The Washington Post reported last week that GE Aviation plans to lay off 10% of its U.S. workforce because of COVID-19, or around 2,600 workers. That news led union members to picket outside the company’s headquarters in Boston Monday.
The Madisonville plant employs about 500 people. Hopkins County Judge-Executive Jack Whitfield Jr. said Monday he had not received any notices from GE Aviation about job reduction.
Warrior Coal’s closure throws yet another curve in Whitfield’s effort to develop a budget for next fiscal year, since coal severance money is a key element.
“It’s probably for the best interest of the employees, from a health perspective,” said Whitfield, who noted that production lost over the next two weeks could be made up with overtime when the mine reopens.
Coronavirus apparently has not reached Warrior Coal yet. While some people have expressed concern on social media about the health of workers, Alliance President Joseph Craft III said states need the coal from its mines.
“Imagine the impact if our miners didn’t show up every day to ensure the reliable supply of this essential fuel necessary to keep the lights on,” Craft said.