Dave Hathaway is a coal miner in Greene County, in the very southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Apart from a brief stint living in Colorado as a child, he’s lived his whole life there, and he’s never really thought much about leaving.
So when he was laid off in late 2015, he figured he had to find a way to stay there.
The question of what will happen with coal miners and the communities that depend on them has become pointed in recent years, as thousands of mining jobs have been lost in Appalachia and around the country.
The case of Dave Hathaway shows how difficult it can be for miners to find work that can approximate the kind of earning power and stability coal brought them, while fulfilling one important requirement: being able to stay in the place you call home.
Hathaway spent a year looking for work. He put in hundreds of online applications, and tried unsuccessfully to join a union.
He only had one iron-clad rule in his job hunt: he wouldn’t leave Greene County. His family and his wife Ashley’s family are in the area; his son Grant, 11, lives there, too.
Grant lives with his mother nearby, but he has a room at his dad’s house in Waynesburg. It’s crowded with toys, video game paraphernalia, and Grant’s collection of 2,000 football cards, including the boy’s most prized possession–a Marcus Mariota rookie card.
Living in Greene County means Hathaway can take Grant turkey hunting, play cards with Grant, and go to his son’s wrestling meets, where Hathaway, a former wrestler, could call out holds and maneuvers from the side of the mat.
Steady drain out of Appalachia
Greene County has been the biggest coal-producing county east of the Mississippi for years. And Hathaway grew up in a coal mining family. His father, and his father’s father were coal miners.
“Pretty much everyone you knew was a coal miner. Everyone’s dad was a coal miner,” Hathaway says.
He eventually became a coal miner himself, taking a job at the Emerald Mine in Waynesburg, Pa. in 2007.
He at first was skeptical that he’d ever like it. But eventually, he thought of the job as the greatest in the world. He loved the camaraderie of working with his union “brothers”. The mine was a place to get paid well for doing hard work.
But then bad times came. Coal began to lose market share to natural gas. Coal production reached a 30-year low in 2015, and the number of U.S. coal miners fell from 90,000 in 2012 to 50,000 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And at the end of 2015, Hathaway lost his job, too. The Emerald mine closed.
Over the years, many have left Appalachia in search of work. The population in Greene County, like much of the Appalachian coal region, peaked in 1950, at 45,000, and since then it has slowly declined. Greene County is now home to just 37,000 people, and every year, that number gets lower and lower.
Ashley Hathaway gave birth to their son, Deacon, in August, 2016. After a few months, she went back to work, at the coal company’s purchasing department (the couple met at the mine), and Dave watched Deacon at home. He called himself the ‘manny’, and joked that he was a pro at changing diapers and feeding Deacon with a baby bottle.
From miner to "manny"
Ashley Hathaway was hired at the coal company (it’s had several names, including Alpha Natural Resources; it’s now called ‘Contura’) out of college.
She said when she first started, it was a good place to work, but the mood dampened when the mine started laying people off.
“Just seeing people leaving in the way they did it, it just didn’t seem like the same place as when I started,” she says.
It was tough at home, too, when Dave got laid off.
“I mean, we’ve survived,” she says. “But having a new baby–it was a blessing–but it’s hard. You have to think about the baby now and you’re spending more money because of that.”
As a union coal miner, Hathaway made around $33 an hour at Emerald mine. The yearly take home is around $75,000 a year, and it can get up into six figures with enough overtime.
While he was looking for a job, Hathaway only saw offers for low wage, low benefit work, like part-time positions at a Home Depot or Lowe’s. He wouldn’t take a job like that because he worried it would cause him to lose the health benefits he was still entitled to for the first year after his layoff.
He tried to get into an apprenticeship program with a carpenters’ union, but was turned down.
Watching the clock tick down
By late fall 2016, Hathaway’s unemployment ran out.
He started to get worried. It wasn’t just the money. It was also the feeling he wasn’t providing for his family. He felt that as a man, making money was his responsibility.
“I think for the man of the house to not have a job, it’s pretty disheartening. It’s a hit to my ego, really,” he says. “Ashley’s the breadwinner. It’s cool she has a job, but I need to chip in,” he says.
He held out hope that he’d be re-hired by his old company. He was still a member of the United Mine Workers of America, so he was put on a waiting list to be re-hired at the nearby Cumberland mine. But he had no idea when, or if, that would happen.
After a year of looking for work, he’d burned through his savings and was getting anxious.
Dave had been at Emerald Mine for eight years, and by the time the mine closed down, he had secured an above ground job operating heavy equipment. To him, being above ground was better. It was safer, and he thought it was a higher status job.
He had plenty of gory stories of people getting injured by rock falls or close calls he had as underground coal miner, including one time when he thought he’d get electrocuted by a faulty wire in a pool of standing water.
If he got called back to Cumberland, he knew he’d be back underground. But at least he’d be in Greene County.
Late in 2016, he got a job offer for a company that was doing blasting work. It was great money, and a steady day shift. But it was in Maryland. He’d have to spend four nights a week in a hotel, leaving Ashley to take care of newborn Deacon. “We agreed I pretty much had to do it,” he says. “I didn’t have any funds coming in.”
But just before he would start this job in Maryland, the Cumberland mine called. They offered him a job as a general inside laborer.
He wasn’t relishing going underground, and at age 38, he’d be doing the same job he did when he first started working in coal mines in his 20s. But this was how it had to be, for now.
Ashley says she knew coal mining could be a “scary job,” but she had grown up around it, and accepted the risks it carried.
“My dad and my uncles, they were all coal miners–so I’m kinda used to the fact that it happens,” she says. “I wished he could have found something else, but nothing compares to the pay. And the benefits. We were so lucky having our baby this year.”
While they were covered under Dave’s insurance, they incurred no expenses from childbirth.
When he returned to coal mining, Hathaway says it felt natural to be back working. “You close your eyes and open ‘em again, you could think you’re at the Emerald (mine),” he says.
The only thing that changed was that all of a sudden Dave was now the oldest man on his crew. Now he was at the bottom of the totem pole, even beneath the 20-somethings he was working next to.
His crew cut coal out of the ground with a huge machine called a continuous miner. Hathaway handled advancing the mine’s ventilation system at the face of the coal seam.
It was physically demanding, and the hours were hard to get used to. Every week, he has to work a different shift–daylight, afternoon, or midnight.
“Those first two weeks were ridiculous,” Hathaway says. “That first midnight shift was the first I’ve worked in over a year. That was pretty brutal.”
He and Ashley want to move. They live in town and want a house with land. But in the back of his mind, he’s still wondering, how long will this last?
For years, coal mines have been getting more coal out of the ground with fewer and fewer workers. In 2015, Pennsylvania’s coal mines produced the fewest tons of coal in the state since 1894. What happens when they finish the section of coal they’re currently mining? Will there be another section to mine–or layoffs?
“I mean (the coal seams are) so short. Like, the longwall (mining machine) is just going to rip through them,” he says. “I’m thinking it might happen again.”
In April, he was injured when a piece of rock fell from the roof of the section his crew was working in and hit his knee. He had to have surgery, and was off work for about four months, returning a few weeks ago. He adds that knee injury to a back injury he suffered at the Emerald Mine.
He says he’ll probably be underground the rest of his time at Cumberland.
Would he want to do anything else?
“I don’t know if I’d want to do anything else,” he says. “I mean I tried. No one would hire me.”