WILLISTON, N.D.—From the looks of it, the nation’s boomtown is still booming. Big rigs, cement mixers and oil tankers still clog streets built for lighter loads. The air still smells like diesel fuel and looks like a dust bowl— all that traffic — and natural gas flares, wasted byproducts of the oil wells, still glare out at the night sky like bonfires.
Not to mention that Walmart, still the main game in town, can’t seem to get a handle on its very long lines and half empty shelves.
But life at the center of the country’s largest hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom has definitely changed. The jobs that brought thousands of recession-weary employment-seekers to this once peaceful corner of western North Dakota over the last five years have been drying up, even as the unemployed keep coming.
Downtown, clutches of men pass their time at the Salvation Army, watching movies or trolling Craigslist ads on desktop computers. The main branch of the public library is full, all day, every day, with unemployed men in cubbyholes. And when the Command Center, a private temporary jobs agency, opens every morning at 6am, between two and three dozen people are waiting to get in the door.
Some of these job seekers are sleeping in their trucks, in utility sheds, behind piles of garbage by the railroad tracks, wherever they can curl up.
Only a year ago, Williston’s shale oil explosion was still gushing jobs. From 2010 to 2014, thanks to the Bakken shale oil patch, it was the fastest growing small city in the nation. Williston nearly tripled in size, from 12,000 to 35,000 people. But the number of active rigs used to drill new wells in the Bakken dropped to 111 in March, the lowest number since April 2010, according to state figures. Low oil prices have prompted drilling to slow down, and companies big and small have been laying off workers and cutting hours.
City officials paint a rosy picture. They cite North Dakota Job Service reports that maintain there are 116 jobs in Williston for every 100 residents, point to North Dakota’s ranking among oil-producing states (number two, after Texas), call the oil production slowdown a blip and say the oil patch is still growing.
But the city’s job numbers do not match the reality on the ground. At the Command Center, oil jobs have dropped by 10 percent since last Fall, said Kyle Tennessen, the branch manager. Compounding the job shortage, laid-off oil workers were competing with others for construction jobs and everything else, Tennessen added.
Some migrants have already left, or are planning to, according to the local UHaul companies. They report fewer people renting vans and trucks to move into town and more laid-off workers renting vehicles to move out.
The rest are becoming Williston’s version of day laborers. They compete for low-paying jobs such as picking up trash, doing laundry and mopping floors, that make enough for them to eat, but not enough to afford a place to live. (The average one-bedroom apartment in Williston costs $2,395 a month.)
Some live in one room with several other men, pooling resources and splitting costs. Others don’t know where they’ll sleep from one night to the next.
The Salvation Army has offered stranded workers a one-way ticket back home. But many job seekers seem unwilling to leave—at least not until they can make a success out of their sacrificial move to a place with six months of winter, the worst traffic they’ve ever seen, and a disgruntled, if not miserable, populace.
“You just have to cowboy up and expect things to get better,” said Terry Ray Cover, a 56-year-old farmer and jack-of-all-trades who came from southeast Iowa on a Greyhound bus in November. He’d heard North Dakota was raining jobs.
“They don’t tell you it’s all a lie,” he said, sipping coffee in the Salvation Army on a frigid day in early March. “Places advertise jobs and then tell you they’re not hiring.”
The jobs he sees ads for, Cover said, require certifications and degrees, “like engineering.” He had found odd jobs, one at a cattle ranch, since he arrived in Williston. But he hadn’t worked in four weeks, despite daily treks to the Command Center.
Cover, bundled in a ski suit, had spent the most frigid nights of winter (20 Fahrenheit) in a tin shelter he discovered within walking distance of the Command Center, his best hope for work. He was relying on the Salvation Army for his daily bread and new friends for his daily smokes.
The men—they are all men—hanging out at the Salvation Army for coffee, bread and whatever donated goods there might be on a given day (from 9am to 3pm) have come from all over, including Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Louisiana, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. They include a number of African immigrants originally from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.
But their stories are close to the same. They heard Williston had jobs, and they weren’t having any luck back home. So they hopped in their truck, or a Greyhound bus, and hopped off to a rude awakening.
Most of the men, who range in age from their early 30s to late 50s, have spent 10 nights, the maximum allowed, at a 10-bed emergency shelter the Salvation Army and a local church set up, leasing 10 beds at a camp for oil workers (a so-called man camp). More than 100 men applied to stay at the emergency shelter since it resumed operating for the second year in November. (It was set to close March 31 but has extended its season due to demand.)
Although there is camaraderie among the migrants, they are openly frustrated, and the room where they hang out at the Salvation Army is often tense and gloomy. Men who have been sleeping outside in the elements, or trying to, fold themselves into corners to get real sleep. The African immigrants tend to hang together, but a lot of loners fill the room.
Ali Singa, who moved to North Dakota from Nashville nine months ago, started out in Fargo, making $11 an hour the day after he arrived in shipping. He stayed for three months before heading to Williston, where he heard he could make more money, enough to send to his wife and three children in Sierra Leone.
He found work in a nearby oil patch town, Watford City, hauling water, but he was laid off in December and has not been able to land another job. “A lack of a job has trapped me here,” Singa said. “Right now, I’m staying with friends. I’m in a very bad situation. You must put this down in your report: At the same time that they’re advertising jobs, they’re laying people off, and people keep coming and keep coming.”
Singa, a high school French teacher in his native country, moved to Washington, D.C. from the Sierra Leone 10 years ago, seeking a better life for his family back home. But after being laid off from a baggage handler job, he has not had much luck with his relocations.
“Had I stayed home I would’ve been better off by now,” he said. “But hope has kept me here, because hope is the poor man’s bread. Why can’t I get a job? I don’t have any felonies, no arrests. I am a good person. It’s the strangest thing. Is it because of the color of my skin? I tell people back home to not come here.”
Singa leaves to find work every morning at 5:30, and is usually the first one to arrive at the Command Center. But jobs are not doled out on a first-come basis. They are handed out based on qualifications, and rankings workers have received from employers, Kyle Tennessen said. That works against the newest workers, without a hiring history.
On a recent typical morning, Tennessen doled out seven day jobs—restaurant work, construction site cleanup, maintenance—leaving 22 people who’d arrived before daybreak with no work for another day.
One of them happened to be a woman. Louise Provus, 50, moved from Spokane to Williston two years ago with her husband, Randy Fleming, 57. “For the first two years,” she said, “I had a job at the local dry cleaners. In April, I started working for a cleaning company as a domestic. But that’s just once a week now, so I’m still looking.”
Fleming, who lost an automotive shop in Spokane to fire, has been looking for work doing anything. But he has not landed a permanent job. “I’ve got like 40 applications out there,” he said. “I’ve been in here all week. And some days, I’ve been in here all day, just in case. We’ll come here at six and I’ll stay till two or three in the afternoon. Then I’ll take the heeltoe express home.”
He and his wife are among the luckier regulars at the Command Center. They found an apartment in subsidized senior housing for $600 a month. Even so, Provus said, they struggle to pay the rent. “I think I’ll go to the library after this and put in an application at Walmart,” she said.
Walmart has had the same sign out front advertising jobs at $17 an hour for three years, despite hiring freezes.
“I know it’s a long shot,” Provus said. “Make sure you tell people that if you get any job out here, no matter how bad, you’d better take it, because it’s the best you’re going to get.”