In The Oil Patch, Employees Share In The Boom And Bust

Sep 8, 2015

With oil hovering around $45 a barrel, oil workers can go from making a six-figure salary -- including overtime -- to being unemployed and broke.

When business is good, a $60,000 truck, for example, might be a reasonable purchase and maybe even a business expense. But the oil industry isn't like most businesses. Work can go away overnight. Which is what happened at oilfield services and rental company NewKota in Gillette, Wyoming.

NewKota recently laid off almost all of its employees, but Jordan Couch, a 22-year-old cowboy from Idaho, was one of the few who stayed on. He didn't lose his job because he was one of the only employees who had his own housing. But the company didn't have any work for him for a few months, so he wasn't getting paid.

"I had like maybe three-grand saved. I went through that in two or three weeks," Couch said. "Truck payment, $1,000 a month; rent payment, $1,000 a month; food and then everything else."

By the time work picked up, Couch was already two months behind on truck payments and was almost evicted from his apartment. One of the problems, he explained, is that oilfield money can change spending habits. When he was a cowboy, he didn't make much money and so he didn't spend much money.

Then he started working in the oilfields.

"So you're going to the bar and it turns into $500 a night because you're drunk buying Patrón for everybody sitting at the bar," Couch said with a laugh.

That is where his boss, Justin Gamble, steps in as a sort of financial adviser.

"They blow every penny they get," Gamble said. "They make more money than they've ever made before. I tell them all the time. They need to save their money."

The two men agreed that none of the younger guys ever take that advice.

But maybe they should. Gamble has been through downturns in the energy and steel-making industries. He's also divorced and pays child support, so he knows that the money doesn't always last.

"Nothing is secure. Unless you're making toilet paper I guess," Gamble said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. has lost around 5,000 oil and gas jobs over the past year. That number represents a relatively small decrease of 2.4 percent, but could indicate the beginning of a continuing downward trend.

That is what banks are worried about.

Kurt Thelen, the CEO of Campco Federal Credit Union in Gillette, explains that according to his most recent records from the first six months of 2015, the dollar amount in losses of Campco's loans hasn't changed much from this June to last June.

That lines up with federal data on Western energy states. According to the National Association of Credit Unions, credit unions in Wyoming, Colorado, and North Dakota all have a lower percentage of delinquent loans than the national average.

But Thelen cautions that losses are likely there. They just haven't shown up on balance sheets yet.

"It has been more of just the last 60 days that we have really started to see a real change," Thelen said.

More people are coming into Campco because they can't make their monthly loan payments, Thelen said. The number of vehicles being turned over to the credit union has more than doubled.

"We know we've only hit the tip of the iceberg so it's gonna be a matter of how low will these prices go and how long will they go," Thelen said.

In the past, low oil prices have hit energy towns hard. During the oil bust in the mid-80s personal and business bankruptcy filings in Wyoming were nearly triple what they were in 1980. Several local banks shut their doors.

Mark Zaback, a banker who moved to Wyoming in 1982 to work in savings and loans, remembers those tough times, like customers who would raid  their children's savings just to make the payroll tax for their businesses.

"I didn't know if the bank I was with was going to survive," Zaback said. "I remember thinking I might have to go bartend. I learned how to bartend in college. I think you just go into survival mode."

In terms of how the boom and bust economy impacts workers, Zaback believes a big part of the problem is a serious lack of financial literacy.

"You have young people coming out of high school or college and all of the sudden they're getting a six-figure check," Zaback said. "But they don't have anybody telling them you know, you've got to save some of that money. They'll go out and they'll get a new boat a new pickup. And they'll qualify because they're making a lot of money."

This is precisely where cowboy turned oilfield employee Jordan Couch has found himself.

His shiny white truck is equipped with air conditioned seats, satellite radio, and a video screen for watching movies. Despite his recent financial troubles, he is keeping it.

"Oh, 100 percent," Couch said. "Even if I go back to cowboying, I'm still making $1,000 a month. I can make the payment. Who eats, right?"

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.