On unemployment rates: "We have counties in Southwest Virginia that are well into double digits and some that are pushing 20 percent."

Israel O'Quinn on Monday, August 10th, 2015 in a speech.

Israel O'Quinn says S.W. Virginia coal counties are nearing 20 percent unemployment

Del. Israel O'Quinn said unemployment is near 20 percent in some coal-producing counties in Southwest Virginia. (Photo by the Associated Press)

One speaker after another railed against the Environmental Protection Agency during a recent meeting of the Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group founded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch.

Among the critics was Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, who traveled about 320 miles from his district in the southwest corner of Virginia to the Aug. 10 event at the University of Richmond. He warned that new EPA regulations curbing carbon emissions will pound the already wounded coal-producing counties in his district.

"Virginia’s unemployment rate is not spectacular right now, regardless of what the governor would have you believe," O’Quinn said. "Now in Southwest Virginia, we have counties that are much, much higher.

"We have counties in Southwest Virginia that are well into double digits and some that are pushing 20 percent unemployment. Twenty percent, that’s not an insignificant number and you can track almost every single one of those to the coal industry because when coal takes a downswing, the entire economy of Southwest Virginia takes a big lick right along with it."

No doubt, the coal industry has seen better days and plays a vital role in Southwest Virginia’s economy. But we wondered whether counties in the region really are experiencing unemployment rates "well into the double digits" with some "pushing 20 percent."

We defined Southwest Virginia based on a map published by the Center for Economic Education at Radford University. The region stretches from Lee County in the corner of the state to Roanoke County. It includes 19 counties and six cities.

According to the Virginia Employment Commission’s latest statistics, the state had a seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 5 percent in June. The rate was 6.1 percent in Southwest Virginia.

None of the counties or cities in the region had unemployment rates that came anywhere close to "pushing 20 percent," as O’Quinn said. Two counties were in low double digits: Buchanan at 11.1 percent and Dickenson at 10.2 percent. In third place was Wise County, with 9.2 percent unemployment.

It’s notable that Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise have the highest unemployment rates in the region because they are the three largest coal-producing counties in Virginia and, according to VEC data, are home to about 80 percent of the state’s coal miners.

In 1990, the three counties had 9,773 coal mining jobs. That plummeted to an average of 2,812 jobs last year. Coal mining also has steadily declined in Kentucky and West Virginia during recent decades, and experts cite several key reasons:

  • increased competition from cheap shale gas and and from less expensive, low-sulfur coal out west, particularly Wyoming’s Powder River Basin;

  • increased automation in coal mining;

  • increased regulations from the EPA.

Getting back to O’Quinn, it’s clear that the unemployment rate is high in Virginia’s three largest coal counties, but not as bad as the delegate described.

When we asked O’Quinn for the source of his numbers, he sent us a map from the VEC confirming the county unemployment rates we’ve detailed and he told us he misspoke. He said he meant to say that "underemployment" was pushing 20 percent in some coal counties.

Underemployment occurs when a person holds a job that is below his training and doesn’t meet his financial needs. Neither the VEC nor the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics measures underemployment for Virginia counties. O’Quinn told us many local government officials in his district "anecdotally" believe "underemployment there "could absolutely be as high as 20 percent."

O’Quinn also said that since the release of June unemployment figures, coal companies in his district have filed federal notices that they are planning to lay off more workers. U.S. law requires most companies with 100 or more employees to provide 60 days notification in advance of layoffs.

Records show one such notification, called a WARN notice, has been filed by a coal company in Virginia this year. On July 8, Alpha Natural Resources said it will lay off 165 Virginia workers on Sept. 6.

Our ruling

O’Quinn said, "We have counties in Southwest Virginia that are well into double digits and some that are pushing 20 percent unemployment." He offered the statistics at a rally where speakers were trying to muster opposition to new EPA carbon restrictions by arguing, in part, the rules will accelerate the decline in coal mining jobs.

There is no county in the region that comes close to a 20 percent unemployment rate and it’s debatable whether any are "well into double digits." The highest June unemployment rates were in Virginia’s three biggest coal counties: Buchanan, 11.1 percent; Dickenson, 10.2 percent; and Wise, 9.2 percent.

Those are big numbers. But McQuinn, who acknowledges he misspoke, exaggerated them. We rate his statement False.