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The Downsides Of Living In An Oil Boom Town

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
December 18, 2012

The population boom in Williston, N.D., has been a blessing and a curse for many local businesses. Williston, the fastest growing small city in America, is enjoying an oil boom and has seen its population double in the past two years.

At the city’s brand new McDonald’s, manager Vern Brekhus struggles every day to maintain his staff of nearly 100 workers.

“It’s a pain, it’s a real pain,” Brekhus says. His staff used to be in an upbeat mood, he says. “Now it’s like, how many people do I gotta hire today? How many people do I gotta let go because they didn’t show up? It never quits.”

Brekhus says the difficulty isn’t hiring people, but keeping them.

“We may hire ‘em; we won’t see ‘em. They won’t show up for one day’s worth of work. They can just go down the street and get another job,” Brekhus says.

But not everyone quits. Kyle Pfifer moved to Williston from a town in Tennessee where he couldn’t find a job. For him, making $11 an hour at a fast food restaurant is a big step up. An oil job might pay three times that. But for now, he’s more comfortable working indoors.

“With the weather being the way it’s gonna be or with the way these people say it’s gonna be, I don’t know if I want to be out in negative 80 degree weather with the wind blowing and everything,” Pfifer says.

But for every worker who stays, there are two more who leave.

For some, the pay is still too low because the cost of living, especially housing, is soaring.

Some residents, like 16-year-old Gabriel Ramirez, find roommates. Ramirez moved to Williston from Oregon to find a job. He has seven roommates.

“Three people share the living room, and two other people share one room, and three other people share the other one,” Ramirez says.

Shawn Wenko, assistant director of economic development in Williston, says rents have been a “huge” challenge.

“If you look back several years ago, you probably could have found a two-bedroom apartment for $300 to $500 a month. We’ve seen huge increases over the years to anywhere from $2,000 to $2,500 a month for a single bedroom apartment here,” Wenko says. “So we’re seeing Manhattan rates, if not above Manhattan rates.”

The city is now racing to meet the demand for housing. This year, 1,000 apartments were built, and another 2,000 should be finished next spring.

There’s also an acute day care shortage. Mothers who might want to work at a store or restaurant feel they have no choice but to stay home with their kids.

“Parents are desperate for any kind of child care,” says Liz Fox, the director of Little Lambs Childcare, which was started last summer to help meet the demand. “Before we even opened, as of Jan. 1, we had a waiting list that almost was seven pages long.”

Yet the center is less than half full because Fox can’t find workers. Her competition isn’t in the oil fields; it’s in retail and in local restaurants.

“It’s hard to compete with wages in Williston when Wal-Mart offers $17 an hour, and our starting salary is $12 or $10 an hour,” Fox says.

Wenko says building more housing and day care are the city’s top two priorities. But he says businesses also have to do their part.

“It’s a giant puzzle where everything is a piece that needs to come together. You have to be creative. You can’t just put a sign in the window and say, ‘Help wanted right now,’ ” Wenko says. “You’ve got to do some sort of housing stipend. You need to include some sign-on bonuses in there.”

And the hiring crunch is spreading. A Midwestern chain of home improvement stores is now flying employees to North Dakota from Wisconsin to work at its store in Minot, more than 100 miles east of Williston.

But that company and many others wanting to open stores in Williston are waiting for the supply of housing and day care to grow enough so that the employees they hire will be able to stay in their jobs. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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