Growing up the son of a coal miner in southern West Virginia, David Wiley saw the downside of the profession up close. His father had been injured in the mines, lost several fingers and damaged his knees and back. "He was just really beat up," Wiley says.
So when it came to find his own line of work, Wiley says he had no desire to work in the coal mines. For a couple of years after high school, Wiley tried his hand at manufacturing and welding jobs in the neighboring state of North Carolina.
But when Wiley decided to return to West Virginia in his early 20s, the job opportunities were few and far between, and when he received a job offer to work in the mines for a starting wage of $22 an hour, the pay was too good to pass up.
"I was excited," says Wiley, "that's really good money for anybody. A young kid like me, I'd never made that kind of money."
Wiley worked the overnight shift, beginning at 11 p.m. and clocking out at 7 a.m. and spent his nights scooping up spilled coal, helping to install structural supports in the tunnel ceilings, and cleaning and maintaining the mine for the next shift. Much of the work was in the dark and it usually involved heavy manual labor.
"Everything in the mines is heavy," Wiley says. "The lightest thing is a 50-pound bag of rock dust."
Wiley says that for a while, the high pay made up for difficulty of the work, but he says that he soon began to develop pain in his knees and back, and a falling rock injured his foot. Wiley also notes that the grueling hours meant he had little time to spend with his wife and children.
"You'd come home and sleep all day. You really didn't have no life," says Wiley. "You're just a walking zombie."
The final straw, Wiley says, was the instability of working in the mines.
"You can tell when the coal market is up, then you can tell when the bottom drops," he says, "because they start laying people off."
For more than five years, Wiley says he shuffled between different mining operations in southern West Virginia, as they opened and closed, riding out the off-periods with savings and by signing up for unemployment.
"One mine might work good for a year, then it might shut down," he says. "Then you go somewhere else and it could work for two years, then it might shut down. I worked at one mine, we had over 500 men there at one time and they shut the doors. Five-hundred people lost their jobs ... The last time that I got laid off, the coal market was so down that you couldn't buy a job."
Wiley says that the last time he was laid off, he began applying to every minimum wage he could find in the area.
"I was willing to take anything and everything," Wiley says.
One day, he came across an online job posting for an ambulance driver with STAT Emergency Medical Services in Pineville, W.V. Though he'd never worked in the medical field, Wiley says he was desperate, and decided to apply.
He remembers speaking with the company's hiring manager on the telephone, "basically crying because my unemployment was getting ready to run out. I had two babies at the time. I couldn't figure out how I was going to feed them, and he gave me a shot."
I was a shock at first, he says, going from having made around $30 an hour to minimum wage work at $8.75. But he needed a way to help support his family, and the constant demand for healthcare in the area meant plenty of opportunities to work overtime.
"I've come in at 3:00 in the morning and not gotten off until 3:00 in the morning," Wiley says.
He says he knew within his first month that he'd made the right decision in picking his new line of work.
"I fell in love," Wiley says. "It's a steady job. You don't have to worry about losing your job, because it's always here."
In the two years since he was hired on at STAT EMS, Wiley has graduated from ambulance driver to become an Emergency Medical Technician, and he's currently enrolled in a paramedic science course at a local community college. Wiley plans to continue in the medical field as far as he can. And, despite lower pay, the meaning he derives from his interactions with his patients has made a huge difference in his life.
"You pick up somebody, and they're on the verge of death. And you drop them off and they're shaking your hand, saying, 'You meant a lot to me.' " Wiley says, "It makes you feel you're somebody — that's enough payment."
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
It's time for another installment in our series Brave New Workers, stories from people adapting to a changing economy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do I still see myself as a cowboy? Yeah, I do, and I hope I always do.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Free porn has completely killed the industry as we know it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The black market is filled with people of color just like the prison that I was in.
SUAREZ: This week's story takes us to West Virginia in the heart of Appalachian coal country. That's where we met emergency medical technician David Wiley, a 30-year-old former coal miner and father of three. Wiley spent the better part of his 20s jumping from job to job in the mines as the coal market fluctuated, until one day the jobs finally went dry. And Wiley was forced to find a new way forward.
Now Wiley works for STAT Emergency Medical Services, a private ambulance company that serves communities across the region. We met up with Wiley as he waited in a parking lot for a dialysis patient.
DAVID WILEY: We are at Bluefield, W.V., dialysis center. We're waiting on a patient to come off of dialysis treatment, pick him up, take him back to the nursing home. We do this every Saturday - me and Rocky does.
SUAREZ: We step inside the ambulance with David Wiley and his co-worker Rocky Lusk and ask David to describe his last job working in the coal mines.
WILEY: Rocky used to be in the mines. Ask him. Rocky.
ROCKY LUSK: Yo.
WILEY: Paint these people a picture of when you first go underground.
LUSK: Very dark.
SUAREZ: Growing up, the son of a lifelong coal miner, David Wiley saw the dangers of the work up close. His dad was injured in the mines losing several fingers, damaging his knees and back.
WILEY: I really didn't want to get into coal mining.
SUAREZ: Wiley says growing up in West Virginia, job prospects were slim, and he needed to find a way to help support his family.
WILEY: I've always wanted to go to school, get me an education. But, you know, I had bills and stuff, and I had to find a job. So I just figured, well, I'll just try my hand at it, and sure enough I got a job underground. At the same time, I was excited. I really was because I was ready to make $22 an hour. That's really good money for anybody. You know, a young kid like me, I've never made that kind of money.
My first day of work underground was awful. I was considered what they call a red hat, and all that is you're the low man on the totem pole. And they're going to work you as hard as they can work you to see if you break. It was horrible. You'd go in at night. You work from 11 to 7. You go home and sleep all day, then you just get up and go again. It's - I mean, you really didn't have no life. It starts playing the toll on you. You start getting back problems. You start having knee problems. You start getting hurt. I had a rock fall on me and crush my foot.
You can tell when the coal market's up, then you can tell when the bottom drops 'cause they'll start laying people off. One mine might work good for a year then it might shut down. Then you go somewhere else, and it could work for two years, then it might shut down. I worked at one mine - we had over 500 men there at one time, and they shut the doors. Five hundred people lost their job.
The last time I got laid off, started applying everywhere - I mean, Dollar Store, Wal-Mart. I mean, I was willing to take anything and everything. I was just surfing through the web and the job description was a CPR driver, and you would basically just drive an ambulance. I remember talking to Eddie. He is the HR manager for STAT, basically crying because my unemployment was getting ready to run out, and I had two babies at the time. And I couldn't figure out how I was going to feed them, and he gave me a shot. I went from making $30 an hour to 8.75. But the advantage that this has over Lowe's or Wal-Mart or something is you get plenty of overtime.
I've come in at like 3 in the morning and not get off till 3 in the morning. I remember my first cardiac arrest. I was working with the EMT doing chest compressions on this guy, pouring my heart out trying to keep this guy alive. Normally when someone calls for an ambulance, it's one of the worst days of their life. You pick up somebody they're on the verge of death, and you drop them off. And they're shaking your hands saying, you know, you mean a lot to me. It makes you feel like you're somebody then. That's enough payment.
SUAREZ: David Wiley is an emergency medical technician in Pineville, W.V. He's currently studying to be certified as a paramedic, and he spoke to us for our series Brave New Workers on people adapting to a changing economy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.