Trebr Lenich always called his mother before driving home from his overnight shift at Hamilton County Coal’s Mine #1. 

The call she got on the morning of Aug. 14, 2017, worried her. 

“He said, ‘Mom, I am just so exhausted, so wore out,’” said Teresa Lenich, who worried about the long hours and consecutive days her son routinely worked. 

That night, Trebr Lenich never made it home. 

Coworkers driving behind Lenich saw him driving erratically and suspected he was falling asleep at the wheel, they told his mother. On the way to the West Frankfort home he shared with his parents, girlfriend and baby daughter, he drove off the road into a ditch and hit an embankment, then the engine of his car caught fire, according to a sheriff’s report. 

Trebr Lenich Credit: Teresa Lenich / Courtesy

Like many young miners, Lenich was employed through a contracting company that provides temporary employees for mines, usually at lower wages than direct hires and with no promise the mining company will hire them permanently.

This staffing structure, and the disappearance of labor unions from Illinois mines, have made conditions less safe in mines and work more grueling for miners, according to experts and studies. With no job security, temporary staffers are reluctant to complain about potentially unsafe conditions — including long work hours — or report minor accidents, experts say. And temporary workers often have less experience in a given mine, so they may not understand the specific conditions and risks in that mine as well as a longtime employee.

A miner who retired in 2014 after 25 years in several Illinois mines said he saw firsthand the loss of union representation, the increasing use of contractors, and the increasing pressure to work long hours, with debilitating consequences for mine safety and miners’ well-being.

“Guys are working as contractors because, guess what, there are no other jobs in the industry,” said the miner, who asked his name not be used since he has family working in mines and fears retaliation. “If you have two little kids at home you’re trying to feed and they say, ‘Hey you’re staying over tonight or you’re working [overtime] tomorrow,’ basically you’re doing the job or you’re not going to be there anymore. It was never that way in the union.”

The most recent death in an Illinois mine was a contractor, like Lenich, in Hamilton County Coal’s Mine #1. John Ditterline had been a miner for 28 years at various mines in Illinois. He had been working for six weeks as a contractor through S&L Industries when he died in the mine in the early morning hours of Jan. 5, 2019. At the time of his death, 11 of the 34 people working in the mine were contract workers, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration records. MSHA determined that Ditterline died after being pinned by a pneumatic door in the mine that malfunctioned while he and three other contract workers were investigating a power cable. 

Data provided by MSHA in response to a public records request showed that between 1983 and 2018, the proportion of total coal mine work nationwide done by contractors increased steadily and significantly, from 4% in 1983 to 26% in 2018. The percent of total coal fatalities among contractors also generally increased during that time, with some years being exceptions, even as fatalities overall declined. 

Longer hours, lower pay

Teresa Lenich said that her son feared losing his job if he declined to work the seven-day-a-week shifts he was assigned. An Illinois state law that mandates all employees get a full day of rest each week has an exception for coal miners, as well as for agricultural workers, workers canning perishable goods and several other jobs.

According to Lenich’s pay stub from Custom Staffing Services, the Indiana firm that employed him, he worked 65 and 67.5 hours for $18 an hour in each of the two weeks before he was killed. Teresa Lenich said her son told her that the miners were under pressure to work overtime, and he felt the job he did on the overnight shift required twice as many miners as were assigned to it. 

Heather Dunlap, a representative of Custom Staffing, said that mining companies like Hamilton County Coal, not Custom Staffing, set miners’ hours. A representative of Hamilton County Coal referred questions about work with contractors and Lenich’s schedule to a lawyer for parent company Alliance Resource Partners, who did not return calls and emails.

A roadside memorial for Trebr Lenich.
A roadside memorial for Trebr Lenich. Credit: Teresa Lenich / Courtesy

Teresa Lenich said she sometimes urged her son to refuse overtime or call in sick. 

“He said, ‘Mom, you don’t understand, I can’t. I’ll lose my job, and if I lose my job I can’t support my daughter,’” she recalled in an interview. “I said, ‘Buddy, we’ll help support you until you find something else.’ He said, ‘Mom, it’s not your responsibility. I’m an adult now.’”

Researchers have found that a reliance on contract miners can correlate to longer hours worked and higher rates of injuries and fatalities. Lee S. Friedman, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found in a 2018 study that “working for a contractor was strongly associated with injuries occurring during extended work hours,” as Friedman described it. Contract employees’ “odds are significantly and substantially higher than non-contract labor of being injured after eight hours of work,” he said. 

Friedman’s study concluded that injuries occurring after nine hours of work are more likely to be fatal and more likely to involve more than one miner. And miners new to the mine or working irregular shifts were more likely to suffer fatal injuries. 

“Working for contractors is associated with working extended hours and irregular shifts, and the use of contract labour has been reported to be associated with inadequate training, lower compliance with occupational safety laws and higher injury rates,” Friedman’s study found. “An international shift towards using contract labour and extended workdays indicates that injuries during long working hours will likely continue to grow as a problem in the mining industry.”

Mining experts agree there is an important role for contractors in mines. They can provide specialized services and extra help in times of high production. And temporary or contract work often functions as a probationary process, with the mining company eventually hiring some employees directly. But critics say that mines rely too heavily on contract workers, in part to save money. 

Custom Staffing’s website says it helps mining companies “reduce employment costs.” Ditterline’s employer, S&L Industries, based in Kentucky, offered a similar pitch. “With labor costs continuing to rise, our manpower services can provide a cost-effective solution,” the S&L website said at the time. 

Bob Sandidge, then the primary owner of S&L and now the owner and CEO of a mining contracting company called RWS Resources, said that miners employed through his company typically earn between $1 and $6 per hour less than those directly hired by the mine.

He said that for S&L, miners may work long hours for several-week stretches, but “you can’t drive them into the ground.”

“If you have a special project and someone has to hammer 60 hours a week for a couple weeks, then everyone jumps in and does it,” he said, “but then we give them a break.”

The data 

Friedman and his colleagues found that nationally the proportion of injuries to contract miners compared with direct hires increased fourfold from 3.3% to 12.5% between 1983 and 2015. Meanwhile, an analysis of Mine Safety and Health Administration data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2006 and 2015, mining contractors had higher odds of being killed than direct hires. 

A study by the University of Pennsylvania published in 2013 found that contract coal miners in surface and underground mines were more likely to be killed than direct hires, and were more likely to be killed after working more than eight hours on a shift, especially if they were on the overnight shift. 

“We found that for contractors, a higher proportion of injuries that occurred more than eight hours into a shift and on the first [overnight] shift were fatal, compared to other times of day,” said study co-author Kristin Cummings, who is now with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health but worked on the study before joining the government. “We did not see the same pattern for [direct hires]. We do not know the reason why, but speculated that contractors may have less experience and more difficulty functioning safely after working overnight into the morning.” 

Her team found that contractors’ odds of fatal versus nonfatal injuries were about three times higher than those of direct hires, but direct hires had higher overall injury rates. 

“There are two ways to look at this,” Cummings said. “It could be because contractors were actually at greater risk of having a fatal injury, or it could be that contractors were just less likely to report a nonfatal injury.” 

The University of Pennsylvania study also found that contractors had higher odds of being terminated or transferred due to injury. 

“Possible explanations are the contractors had more severe injuries, so couldn’t continue in the same job; that there was a lower threshold to transfer injured contractors; or there were fewer options for modified jobs for contractors, so they couldn’t be transferred to another job and instead had their employment terminated,” Cummings said.

While Friedman’s and Cummings’ studies did not examine the reasons for increased risk during long shifts, they said they believe fatigue is a “critical element,” as Friedman put it. He said he sees longer shifts and exhaustion as an increasing concern for both contractors and direct hires. 

“The mining industry has moved away from eight-hour shifts and is moving toward 10- and 12-hour shifts,” Friedman said. Federal data shows that workers in mining and logging — which are lumped together — work more weekly hours on average than other private sector occupational categories, with an average of 46.1 weekly hours in February 2019 for miners and loggers, compared to an average 34.4 weekly hours across the private sector. 

No unions, little recourse 

Union officials say contract miners may work longer hours and in more dangerous conditions because they can be easily terminated and, as a result, don’t want to speak up about concerns. Since contractors also typically earn lower wages, they also may be more eager to accept overtime.

“They’ve got contractors coming in and doing the same job regular employees do for half the money with no future,” said Ronnie Huff, an international representative of the United Mine Workers of America who is based in Illinois.

The labor union once represented tens of thousands of workers in Illinois mines, but today there is not a single unionized mine in the state. The last underground coal mine with union representation — Peabody’s Willow Lake — closed in 2012. Foresight Energy, the state’s largest coal mining company, has never had unions in its mines. 

If direct hires were unionized, the union would likely fight against the extensive use of contractors. But without a union, Huff and other labor experts say, miners hired by contractors or the mining company have less power to demand better conditions or shorter hours. 

Since her son’s death, Teresa Lenich has tried to highlight and change the law that exempts miners from a guaranteed day of rest each week. She contacted then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and wrote to former President Donald Trump in hopes they’d help. Madigan’s office communicated with her periodically, but Madigan is no longer in office and Lenich has not been in touch with the current state attorney general. Lenich said she was surprised not to hear back from Trump, “since he says he’s for the people.” 

She sometimes scrolls through photos on her son’s phone, of the mine, and his family. She reminisces about how Trebr seemed to grow up overnight after his daughter was born. Earning money to support his daughter was what kept him going during his long shifts, she said, but now he won’t see her grow up. 

“I can’t do nothing for my son. But if I could get it where no other mother has to hurt like this, that would be something,” she said. “He was just so tired. Nobody should lose their life because the company won’t give them a day off.”

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Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.