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This Is Uncomfortable

The oil economy, as measured in hot dogs and U-Hauls

Annie Baxter May 25, 2015
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You can learn a lot about the economy in Williston, North Dakota, based on Mitch Petrasek’s recent hot dog consumption. 

When I met him in March outside the U-Haul where he was working in Williston, the capital of the state’s oil patch, he had eight dogs lined up on a grill.

“I’ll eat two now, two for dinner and two for breakfast,” he says. The remaining two, he says, would be offered to his boss.

Petrasek’s diet includes a few other things, like power bars and granola bars — the kind of stuff that didn’t need to be warmed up or refrigerated.

“That’s the worst thing off living in a car is the eating situation,” he explains.

Petrasek was living out of his car even though he was making nearly $18 an hour at U-Haul. That’s not entirely surprising for a place like Williston. The oil boom pushed wages sky high. Ditto for rents.

“I could pay $1,000 to stay in a crappy apartment with someone or I could save a $1,000 in my bank account,” Petrasek says.

But the economic forces pushing him to sleep in what he called his “house-car” were shifting right under his nose. Petrasek’s boss at the Williston U-Haul, Brian Way, says it was getting hard to maintain a decent inventory of moving trucks. A slowdown in the oil patch meant people were renting trucks to leave town.

“The issue now that I see it is that we just don’t have many people moving in,” says Way. “We used to have two or three a day, where now we have two or three a week.”

That was at the end of March. Since then, the picture hasn’t brightened much for the oil industry. The number of drilling rigs in North Dakota has dropped from 100 in March to about 80 today.

When I called the U-Haul for an update, I learned neither Petrasek nor Way worked there anymore. Both had transferred to another facility in Fargo, North Dakota, on the other side of the state. Petrasek just moved a couple weeks ago. He says the situation in Williston hadn’t changed much since we last spoke.

“Oh yeah, there [are] still way more people going out than coming in,” he says.

He says he’s making a lower hourly wage now in Fargo, but he can afford housing. He and Brian Way are now roommates, and Petrasek says he’s expanded his diet far beyond hot dogs.

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