After plunge in oil prices, hope fades for group of long-beleaguered workers – the washington post gas exchange in the lungs

##

On Friday, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries announced that they would continue to pump 30 million barrels of oil a day, the latest recent instance of the group breaking with a long-running strategy of reducing supply when prices fall. On the same day, new U.S. jobs data indicated that another 17,000 jobs in and around the oil and gas industries disappeared in May.

The industry, after all, had offered the rare prospect of good-paying jobs to American men with no education beyond high school — men who spent two decades seeing economic opportunities battered by the twin forces of globalization and factory automation. Now, for many of these men, that prospect is fading.

“They’re going to have to take lower-paying jobs,” said Lynn Gray, director of economic research and analysis for the Oklahoma Economics Security Commission. “There’s going to be very few opportunities paying anywhere near what they’re making. That’s beginning to dawn on them.”

The plunge in oil prices has knocked more than half of the country’s oil and gas rigs offline, as companies shut down wells that can’t turn a profit at prices this low. Since November, 44,000 jobs in oil and gas drilling or supporting industries have vanished, according to the ADP Research Institute, which tracks private payrolls nationwide. Most were concentrated in the West and the South.

The son of a firefighter, Gillham went to work right away after high school, fixing engines. He was born and raised in windy Enid, where the economy has long depended on the drilling industry. Gillham graduated from his high school’s vocational track, specializing in diesel mechanics, but chose not to move east to attend junior college.

Gillham bounced between a series of low-wage jobs after high school, never staying long in any of them. He married Sherri when he was 27, working days driving a forklift in a feed-store warehouse, nights washing dishes in a steakhouse and weekends as a security guard in a retirement center. He worked 90 hours a week for barely more than minimum wage. They hardly saw each other.

That all changed, as it did for so many men in the oil patch, when one of his friends told him about his new job at an oil-field construction company. They were hiring like crazy, he said, almost anyone with a clean record and a driver’s license. Gillham got the job straight away.

The industry was surging in Enid and across Oklahoma, a state that had ridden many booms and busts in the drilling business. Improved hydraulic fracturing technology — methods of injecting chemicals into the earth to shake fossil fuels loose — had made it possible for energy companies to extract oil and gas from fields that were previously thought to be tapped out. Rising oil prices made that extraction profitable.

The company paid overtime, and he worked a lot of it. After a year, he took a different job, with more stable hours, for a company that serviced drilling rigs to prevent them from corroding. His crew ranged among as many as 40 drilling rigs in southern Oklahoma, western Kansas and the Texas Panhandle. He earned promotions and was making $45,000 a year, with time to see his wife every night.

He stayed in that job nearly three years, the longest he has spent at one company. Then, global oil prices began to slide last summer as the boom in U.S. production and a slowdown in global demand led to oversupply — and a decline in prices. Then Saudi Arabia, trying to nip the fracking industry in the bud, pumped more oil, to get prices going down.

Gillham experienced the effects. The drilling sites he serviced started shutting down, quickly. His crew dwindled. He thought he might be transferred to a new crew or to the corporate offices. He didn’t think he’d be laid off, until his boss called on a Wednesday in January and told him that Friday would be his last day. He got two weeks’ severance.

When their oil money shut off, the Gillhams canceled their extra cable channels, switched to a cheaper cellphone plan, planned more meals at home and kept a closer eye on the grocery list. They went without health coverage for several months.

After two months of searching for a job, he got one, pouring concrete for the city parks department, that pays half as much. “I can’t really complain about it,” Gillham said, “but it’s basically half what I was getting paid at my oil-field job.”

In Enid, foreclosures are also up, and so are court filings for missed child-support payments, according to social workers in town. There are job openings around town, but they typically pay closer to minimum wage than oil wages. A caseworker at CDSA, a downtown Enid nonprofit that serves the poor, said recently that she’d just seen someone who had lost a $40-an-hour job and taken one that pays $8 an hour.

“I see people who are being evicted. I see people who are homeless,” said the CDSA housing coordinator, who for privacy reasons uses only her first name, Earlene, at work. “People think the money’s going to flow forever, and of course it does not.”

The job losses have also hurt working women in the area, several caseworkers said, because they are stuck trying to pay high rents — pushed up by the surge of drilling money in recent years — with far less support from the men in their lives.

The Gillhams extract hope from their bar. They had thought about buying a new truck last fall, a big Dodge Durango, with their oil money, but at the last minute Sherri said no. She didn’t want the big payment. She’d seen how the oil bust of the 1980s battered her oil-worker father and her family, which depended on him.

Instead, the Gillhams bought their favorite bar, which they hoped would be a more sustainable business. Sherri quit her day job to run the place. On two recent weeknights, they hosted a dozen or so regulars who drank $2.25 Coors Lights and tossed darts deep into the night.

Mike had no intention of running a cash register. So, on Wednesday, he interviewed for a second job, stocking and cleaning the warehouse in the commissary at the nearby Air Force base. The interviewer said he would be a good fit. Gillham hopes he can start soon, three or four evenings a week.