COEBURN, Va. — About two months after the federal government changed its plans on the Job Corps program and decided to continue operations at its Flatwoods site, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner toured the facility Thursday.
Warner, D-Va., called the idea of shutting down Flatwoods “one of the craziest things that came out of Washington” in the last year.
“This facility is a great economic boost for Coeburn and for surrounding communities,” he told reporters before touring the facility Thursday morning. The stop was part of a seven-day trip Warner is taking across the state while Congress is on its August recess.
In May, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the U.S. Forest Service — which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — would end its role in operating the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers and that the Labor Department would take over the Job Corps program. These changes would have resulted in the closure of Flatwoods and eight other sites around the country.
The proposed changes provoked a swift bipartisan backlash in Virginia. Warner, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, joined together and sent a letter to the labor and agriculture secretaries expressing their concerns.
Federal officials reversed course in June, and the USDA kept the Job Corps under its umbrella.
Warner visited the site for about an hour, where he met with site leaders and briefly spoke with students.
The facility currently has 55 students, said David Scholes, director of the Flatwoods site. He estimated 90% of the students are from Virginia, with many coming from Roanoke and the eastern part of the state. He said he’d like to see more local youth enroll in the program.
“Everyone knows on a hot day we want air conditioning, we want plumbing, we want lights,” Scholes said, describing the types of skills Job Corps students can learn. “I tell the students, you can make as much money as someone with a four-year degree or a master’s degree.”
Scholes said Job Corps students work on “essential” projects including ballfields, sidewalks and building houses with Habitat for Humanity.
The senator told students and staff members gathered in a gymnasium his hope was to keep the program funded.
He described the response to save the Flatwoods site as a “combined effort.”
“I think the administration finally realized they made a wrong decision, and I give them credit for reversing,” he said.
Warner also weighed in on an issue currently impacting Southwest Virginia — the ongoing bankruptcy of coal producer Blackjewel LLC and employees who still haven’t been paid for work completed before Blackjewel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 1.
“If you’ve got people working, and you know you’re going to run out of money, you just don’t treat people like this,” he said.
State data shows Blackjewel employed about 480 people in Virginia in 2018.
The Blackjewel situation underscores issues with bankruptcy law and how the claims of workers need to be better prioritized, Warner said.
“It’s too easy for companies to make the claims by the workers somehow less important than the claims from other creditors, and I believe we need a bankruptcy law that says, ‘Your first obligation ought to be protecting workers, then it ought to be protecting pensions,’” he said.
Reform is needed so workers don’t “get pushed to the back of the line,” Warner said.
Warner’s visit to the region continued Thursday with stops in Wise as well as meetings with leaders in Lee and Scott counties.