DOUGLAS — Cody Barney, single father of three, leaned against the side of his pickup, took a drag of his cigarette and summoned the strength to lose his job.
It was shortly before 8 a.m. in the Holiday Inn parking lot, and the April wind was bitter cold. Barney spent 15 years working in field maintenance at Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine.
But instead of reporting to work, as he would have most mornings, he steered his red Ford Super Duty to the hotel here along the West Yellowstone Highway. Nothing about what waited inside appeared welcoming.
Earlier in the week, Barney was one of 235 miners to receive a letter telling him not to return to work on Friday. Then, on Thursday, the public announcement came. Peabody was cutting 15 percent of its 1,385-person workforce at America’s largest coal mine.
“All right, boys,” Barney said, with a flick of his cigarette, to three miners idling by a truck nearby. The group gathered, shared a brief laugh and disappeared inside.
Barney returned alone an hour later, a thin blue envelope in hand.
“It’s not a good feeling,” he said. “You have to move on. Look for work.”
For Wyoming, the question of where laid-off miners like Barney find their next paycheck is now a pressing one. The state’s oil and gas fields are dormant. Its machine shops are quiet. Unemployment is on the rise.
And coal, Wyoming’s bedrock industry, is now in serious decline. Arch Coal joined Peabody in making a massive cut to its Cowboy State payroll on Thursday, letting 230 employees go from its Black Thunder Mine near Wright.
Coal accounted for roughly 14 percent of Wyoming’s gross domestic product, 6 percent of its labor force and 11 percent of all government revenues in 2012, when the coal market was near its height. The average Wyoming miner’s salary is $85,000.
At a news conference Thursday in Cheyenne, Gov. Matt Mead was asked if he was concerned about a mass exodus from the state.
“Obviously it is a concern,” the governor said. “People need to be able to work and feed themselves, feed their families and have insurance. And when good jobs at the coal mine are lost and there isn’t available immediate jobs that satisfy the career goals of those folks, it’s understandable that they may look elsewhere.”
Mead deployed a rapid-response team to help prevent such an exodus. The Department of Insurance will be helping laid-off miners go over their health care options, including those available to them under the Affordable Care Act. The Department of Workforce Services is helping with unemployment and alerting miners to potential job openings and other resources. And community colleges will be honing their programs to offer additional job training.
The governor spoke of trying to bring a large-scale industrial park to the state. Yet even those plans, he conceded, are little consolation to those who lost their jobs.
“Those are longer-term solutions, and for the miners today who are feeling the impact, that may be a long-term help to them,” Mead said. “But I don’t want to create false hope that there is going to be an industrial park opened up there next week.”
Louise Carter-King, the mayor of Gillette, said she was not worried about a mass departure from her city. Its schools, parks and other public amenities make Gillette a desirable place to live, she said.
The mayor spoke of reimagining Gillette and bringing new industry to the city. But she provided few details of what that might entail. Carter-King instead cited the coordinated economic development efforts of local officials in northeast Wyoming and noted Gillette’s pool of skilled laborers now in need of work.
A new business that would create 120 jobs could be coming to town, she said. The details, the mayor added, were confidential.
Many miners interviewed Friday said they preferred to stay in Wyoming. Their families are here. They like the schools and said it is safe for their kids.
But they said they would pursue work where they found it.
Eric Winslow, a Douglas resident and father of two who was laid off Friday after 10 years at North Antelope Rochelle, said he planned to go back to Casper College. His wife has a good job, but it won’t pay the bills.
“I’m going to have to find something today, or tomorrow or the next day. Even if it’s 10 bucks an hour,” Winslow said. “I’m definitely going to retrain myself into something else. This boom and bust sh** — now that I got kids.”
He trailed off. Winslow grew up in Cheyenne and moved to Colorado after school before heading to Douglas to work for Peabody. The Wyoming native said he didn’t see himself leaving his home state again, but he isn’t against moving on if an opportunity presents itself.
“I’d pull up in a heartbeat,” he said. Later, he added, “This place is going to be a dust bowl. Drive through here and look at all the houses for sale here. So that’s why I’m going to have to scratch out and survive here, go to school, wash dishes, do whatever a guy’s got to do.”
Barney, the single father of three, sounded a similar note. He grew up on a ranch in Medicine Bow.
“Those of us from Wyoming would prefer to stay,” he said. “But those of us raising kids, we have to look for work.”