December 19, 2014

Chasing The Oilfield Boom With Family In Tow

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The Foshee family lives in a 31-foot trailer on the outskirts of Gillette, Wyoming.

Melodie Edwards/Wyoming Public Radio

The Foshee family lives in a 31-foot trailer on the outskirts of Gillette, Wyoming.

When you think of oil and gas towns, family-oriented probably doesn’t come to mind. They’re more likely to conjure images of transient workers, crime and RV parks. But plenty of oilfield workers do move to town with their families.

Like the Foshee family. For the last month, mom, dad, three kids, a dog and a cat have all been living in a 24-foot camper at the High Plains RV Park on the outskirts of Gillette in northeast Wyoming. But the family has just moved into a roomier 31-foot camper. Here’s what nine-year-old Clay loves about the move.

“The special features!”

“What are the special features?” I asked him.

“It has a radio!”

He also likes the indoor toilet since it means he doesn’t have to run to the campground bathroom in the middle of the night. His dad, Ronnie, got laid off from his welding job in Texas two years ago when the oilfields there went bust. For a while, he worked odd jobs and came home every few weeks. He refused to do the man camp thing, bunking with a bunch of guys.

“It just don’t seem…comfortable,” he says. “And to be that far away from your family, you should be comfortable.”

So when Ronnie landed a good paying welding job in Wyoming, his wife, Rachel, was relieved. “We all decided at the last minute to go ahead and go,” she says. “So I had a week to pack up the house and take what we needed and left the rest behind.”

As a trained welder, Ronnie makes good money — $25 dollars an hour plus benefits and overtime. Even so, keeping a family together is hard, and expensive. Between the camper and the lot, the Foshees are paying a thousand dollars a month. It costs that much because Gillette has very few places to rent. Chris Estes is the Director of the National Housing Conference.

“There’s a health impact if people aren’t well-housed,” he says. “The educational impact on kids when they’re in unstable housing.” Estes says leaving it up to private enterprise to fill the need doesn’t work:

“The market’s usually going to respond in a pretty short-term way. And I think if you want your communities to be attractive places to live long-term, it takes some coordination and partnership.”

For instance, partnerships with the energy companies themselves. Reliant Asset Management is one that made its name running man camps. Now they’ve been hired by Key Energy in Williston, North Dakota to build and manage family camps for employees. These camps have three-bedroom cabins, complete with a school bus pickup and playgrounds. Property manager Danny Heisler says, as the epicenter of the nation’s energy surge, Williston has been a sort of a boom town case study.

“It was a scarier place to be. It wasn’t a friendly, family, environment.”

But for people who have come back to Williston more recently, it’s a happier and safer place. Key Energy pays for half the cost of these cabins; Heisler says it’s this kind of company-supported family housing that is helping to change the city’s vibe.

“With the amount of money that rent costs in Williston, there’s no better option,” he says. “You just can’t beat it when your company’s paying for, if not all, half your housing.”

It’s an option Foshee wishes she had. We walk out to see the tiny trailer the family just moved out of. The sun is setting over the winter prairie. “It’s so pretty here. I’m used to pine trees. And here, you can see the sky here.”

But with the price of oil falling rapidly, it might not be long before her husband, Ronnie, is looking for work again and they’re making the decision, one more time, about how to keep the family together.