Oil field families
Lure of high wages, overtime often means disruption on the home front
Not much housecleaning gets done when Justin Page gets home.
After working a 15-day “hitch” for Cal-Frac in the oil fields of Williston, North Dakota, the six days off that follow are precious time with his family, wife Angela, and their three girls.
Who cares if the house gets a little messy. Dad’s home.
“When he comes home, the whole dynamic changes,” Angela said in the fun-loving home with two boisterous dogs and two bold cats. “There’s so much going on we don’t have a chance to clean up.”
A life punctuated with the ups and downs of having the family’s breadwinner travel to distant oil fields to make ends meet is a reality for thousands of households across the nation.
In Grand Junction, 650 people are employed as roustabouts in oil and natural gas production, earning an annual mean wage of $44,240 as of May 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Around the country, 68,230 workers held jobs in the field.
States with the highest employment levels of roustabouts are Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Louisiana and California, in that order. Highest paying wages for these jobs are in Alaska, followed by Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado, the BLS reported. Mean annual wages in Alaska are $48,000 a year compared to $39,600 a year in Colorado.
So it’s little surprise, when local and regional energy jobs started to thin and wages dipped, workers began to look elsewhere for work. Yet, the tolls of lengthy commutes, and the sacrifices both from the worker logging long shifts and a partner at home keeping families stable have both fractured and strengthened everyday life, many families report.
“The kids are super happy when he comes home,” Angela Page said. “The youngest gets upset when he leaves and asks, ‘Why do you work so far away?’ To explain that to a little girl about to turn 8 is difficult. That initial day that he leaves, she says, ‘I miss daddy already.’ We’re honest with her and say if daddy didn’t go to work, we wouldn’t have the things that we have.”
The on-again, off-again life with their father and husband has been like this since Justin started working for Cal-Frac in February 2011. Having one breadwinner, Angela stays home with the girls, ages 7 to 16.
“We didn’t think it was fair for them to not have at least one parent at home, and paying the cost of childcare is just ridiculous,” Angela said.
When Justin started with the company, some travel benefits made it more amenable to make the nearly 14-hour haul to the town brushing the Canadian border. Then, hitches were three weeks on and two weeks off. The company initially paid for direct flights so workers could leave Grand Junction at 6 a.m. and start work by about 11 a.m. Now, there are fewer days off, and the travel benefits have disappeared. Commercial flights can cost up to $1,000 and driving back and forth sucks up two days of a worker’s off time.
“It’s all changed,” Angela said.
Other changes, and not bad ones, include a sense of independence the family has adopted, she said. Not always wanting to bother Justin with the chore list when he gets home, Angela has learned to work the sprinkler system and crosses other items off the to-do list. When the family moved homes, she hired a moving company to help. Having some time apart isn’t the worst scenario, she said.
“Sometimes I need my space,” Angela said. “I don’t know what I would do if he got a job here. He’s used to that part of it.”
Holidays, though, are another story. Or, when his friends want to spend time off with him, time that keeps him from his family. The tug-of-war of trying to make everyone happy can get stressful.
Angela said she no longer looks far ahead into the future to see whether the schedule means her husband will have upcoming holidays off. Last year, for example, Justin arrived home New Year’s Day. The children saved presents to unwrap when their dad got home and celebrated the Christmas holiday when he returned.
“He’s trying to provide for his family and it’s a trade-off,” Angela said. “It’s a love/hate relationship. That’s the perfect way to put it.”
SUPPORT FOR SPLIT FAMILIES
Amy Provstgaard of Battlement Mesa also knows a bit about the sacrifice.
The Wyoming native loved working on a rig for Halliburton and met her future husband, Alex, there. When Amy got pregnant with their child, she created a Facebook page for oil field wives.
To date, the popular site has attracted more than 27,000 likes and has become a sounding board for the challenges working families face. The site also raises money through oil field wives T-shirt sales for families in crisis, helps to distribute news of job openings or injured workers, or simply provides support. Amy hears from wives whose husbands are gone for hitches that span six months to a year, separations not unlike military service.
“I want to help other families,” Provstgaard said from her home, with her two children, James, 3 and Melissa Cook, 9. “I didn’t want them to feel alone.”
When Amy and her husband were working on a rig, the couple made about $100,000 a year. These days, Alex works in Silt for the Bureau of Land Management regulating wells. Though the pay is less, the job security and other benefits are welcome.
There was a time when Alex was still working for Halliburton, traveling around away from his new family. He was staying in Vernal and got the phone call.
“I knew the exact moment I wanted to quit Halliburton,” he said. “She told me James just giggled for the first time and I wasn’t there. That moment in the hotel room, I knew I was done. The milestones I have not missed have more than made up for the lack of money.”
Jemmi D’Amico’s husband, Anthony, works as a relief operator in Silt for Ensign Energy. While Anthony makes the daily commute and gets weekends off, he initially trained for weeks in Greeley and many in his crew still report to the Front Range. Sometimes Anthony must rise at 2 a.m. to get to work, but overall, except for the long hours, Jemmi feels grateful the work doesn’t disrupt family life, and time with her 10-year-old daughter, Mikayla Law.
“I’m very lucky that he comes home every night,” she said. “Until he left for those weeks, I realized I could never do that for life. I don’t know how people do it with little babies. You’d be signing up to do it by yourself.”
Jemmi said it’s not that oil field jobs make more money than other jobs, but workers earn a healthy wage by putting in overtime hours. That conundrum means workers can be exhausted while on the job or traveling, she said.
“The paycheck looks good, but then you look at the hours that went into it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s all I can do to get food in him and in the shower when he comes home. Most people just don’t know the definition of tired.”
For the times when Anthony works out of town, Jemmi said she can have trouble getting motivated.
“When he’s working out of town, my girlfriends come over and pick me up off the couch,” she said. “It’s really hard to cook when he’s not home.”
Her husband laughs at her, not considering her a “real” oil field wife, Jemmi said.
“I just don’t know what we’d do without it,” she said about his work. “It’s been a blessing.”