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Marketplace

As oil jobs falter, North Dakota feels the squeeze

Annie Baxter Apr 3, 2015
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One of the weak spots in the U.S. jobs report for March was mining, especially oil and gas extraction. Employers that provide services to that industry dumped 11,000 jobs last month.

A big reason? The massive drop in oil prices over the past few months. When oil trades low, companies do less drilling. And in a place like North Dakota, they also do less fracking. That’s the process used there to draw the oil out of the shale rock.

The upshot in North Dakota is simply less work on the oil fields for people like Mike Waliezer. His company, Century Crane Services, provides equipment, including cranes, to the oil patch.  

Last year, Waliezer did about $20 million in sales. This year, he’s expecting about half as much.

“Right now it feels like the balloon has been deflated,” he says. Waliezer says he’s down about 25 positions — mostly through attrition so far — but harsher layoffs could come this summer.

Some other companies have already made big cuts. Or in many cases, they’ve slashed workers’ hours and wages. “Between the salary and the bonus scale, it was so far down that it was getting too expensive to live out there,” says Brandon Hartman, a former hydraulic fracking crew worker.

Hartman says he used to pull in more than $100,000, but in recent months his income fell by half. Meanwhile, he still had the same $1,750 monthly rent to cover and feared that the subsidy he was getting from his employer could disappear, as many other companies slashed housing subsidies.  Without the subsidy, he would pay $2850 per month.

Hartman quit his job and left the oil patch at the end of February, taking his wife and two youngest kids back to their native Minnesota.

“I couldn’t even take it anymore,” he says. “I was so stressed out about whether I was going to make anything in the next week, or, was I even going to have a job?”

Companies are drilling and fracking far fewer new wells because oil prices are so low, but existing wells still need to be kept up.

That’s good news for some workers, like Chad Perrault, who repairs wells.

At a bar in Sidney, Montana, on the western edge of the oil patch, Perrault says oil will have to drop a lot more before he loses work.

“Our job is pretty secure for the time being,” he says. “Unless it’s a total bust.”

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