W.Va. lawmakers focus on coal downturn

Associated Press Modified: November 26, 2012 at 5:45 pm •  Published: November 26, 2012
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia officials estimated that joblessness among the state's coal miners has eased as lawmakers sought favorable signs Monday for the state's mining industry.

Around 4,740 miners have sought unemployment benefits since Jan. 1, said Russell Fry, acting executive director of WorkForce West Virginia. But about 2,220 of them did not file a claim for benefits within the last month, Fry told the House-Senate Joint Commission on Economic Development.

"These are individuals we would think may have returned to work," said Fry, whose agency oversees the unemployment program.

Fry also noted that laid off miners may not file any claims, choosing instead to retire or seek work in another industry.

West Virginia is the nation's second-biggest coal producer. While mining accounts for just 5 percent of the state's employments, those jobs tend to pay wages more than one-third higher than the state average. But such factors as cheap natural gas have slowed production in recent months, triggering mine shutdowns and layoffs.

But state Division of Energy Director John Herholdt reminded the lawmakers that American Electric Power recently announced that it did not plan to switch to the cheaper fossil fuel.

"We think the worst is behind us as far as the challenge to electricity production," Herholdt said.

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