OIL FIELDS: Workin’ hard for the moneyCROSBY, N.D. – For a family man like Mike Toenjes, working 10 hours away from home is tough.
By: By Amy Dalrymple and Jackie Grumish, New Richmond News
CROSBY, N.D. – For a family man like Mike Toenjes, working 10 hours away from home is tough.
But with North Dakota’s Oil Patch offering truck driving jobs with better pay, the Somerset man and his family are making it work.
For the past year and four months, Toenjes has been living in Crosby – a rural town so far north that the 37-year-old calls it “the end of the world.” His job is driving tank trucks to haul water for oil drilling and production in northwestern North Dakota and eastern Montana.
“The problem is that I love the job, but I hate that it’s so far from home,” Toenjes said. “If there was a way to move this job 650 miles closer to home, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Toenjes has sons ages 5 and 7 who live with his wife, Stacy, in Somerset. He also has sons ages 15 and 17 who live with their mother in Hudson.
Before moving to North Dakota, Toenjes worked as a truck driver in the Twin Cities area, but he started to see a trend with employers cutting wages and benefits.
The family had a tough couple of years financially, in part because his wife decided to go back to school to finish her teaching degree, and also because Toenjes injured his shoulder and was out of work for some time. The family lost their home in New Richmond to foreclosure.
After hearing there was potential to make “gigantic money” in North Dakota, Toenjes said it was time to try something different.
“At first I wasn’t too concerned,” Stacy Toenjes said about her husband’s decision to seek employment in North Dakota. “Mike’s mind is always on the go, so I wasn’t actually thinking that he would really do it. I figured it was just him pondering the idea. It wasn’t until he was actually packing and ready to leave that my heart sank.”
Stacy, who works as a reading specialist for the Somerset School District, said the entire family has needed to make adjustments since Mike’s departure.
“Our whole world has changed,” she said. “Mike left for the Dakotas in April 2011, we moved to a new home in August 2011, and (the boys) started a new school in September 2011. Now we are in a routine and things are working out well... except the fact we only see Mike for about 10 days every six weeks or so.”
Stacy said the decision to move the boys from their previous schools in New Richmond to schools in Somerset was simply for logistical reasons.
“We decided that having the boys in the same district that I work would make it easier,” she said. “Instead of having two school calendars to follow, we just have one. The boys definitely had to adjust.”
Making the trek to North Dakota wasn’t an easy task for Mike. He had to borrow $750 from his father to get west.
“That is incredibly embarrassing,” he said.
During his first few months in North Dakota, Toenjes said he was making good money and paid his father back.
But since last July, it’s been more difficult to work as many hours, Toenjes said.
Plus, he quickly found that the cost of living in oil country is high. A typical apartment rents for about $1,500 to $2,000 a month in Crosby, Toenjes said.
He initially lived in a small basement apartment, but now lives in an RV he borrowed from relatives that he parks at the Divide County Fairgrounds in Crosby.
But even living in a camper is costly. It costs about $800 to $1,200 per month for an RV spot, plus utilities.
Toenjes said he pays less than that parking at the fairgrounds, but after Oct. 1 he and the other residents will have to find another place to park.
“You can make pretty good money,” Toenjes said. “But it costs real money to live out here.”
Even though it’s difficult for him to be away, Toenjes said it’s tougher on his wife.
“You have to have a strong woman at home,” he said.
Stacy credits her Somerset support system for keeping her sane.
“I have a really strong support system around Somerset to help with the boys,” she said. “I do it because I have to, not because I want to. I love my husband and children and would do anything for them.”
Stacy admitted she hoped her husband would hate his new job and return not long after leaving for Crosby.
“Here we are... a year later still making it work,” she said.
Stacy said technology has helped the boys adjust to Mike being gone.
“We have been doing this for over a year now, and the boys and I still have such a hard time saying goodbye... We talk to Mike daily and also video chat with him on the computer. This helps the boys adjust to missing Daddy.”
The Toenjes family has also made several trips to Crosby to see Mike.
“I flew out to spend our 10-year wedding anniversary with him, as well as visiting him on his birthday via the Amtrak,” Stacy said. “The boys and I spent our spring break out in Crosby, N.D. as well.”
Mike said he’s hoping for some good months to save money so he doesn’t have to be a full-time trucker after he returns home.
It’s unclear how long Mike will stay in Crosby, Stacy said.
“Our lives are ever changing, so it is impossible to say how long he will end up staying,” she said. “We have considered moving to Crosby on numerous occasions. We are not sure if this would be a positive move for the family. Lots of things to consider... but, still discussing it.”
Thomas Christensen, of Osceola, recently began making a similar transition to working in North Dakota oil country.
The 34-year-old had worked as a truck driver for about 15 years, but had seen his hours reduced. He found a job working in the coil tubing division of Sanjel based in Williston, N.D.
“I have the potential to double my income from what I was making,” Christensen said.
Christensen’s job provides him housing in a temporary housing crew camp, often referred to as a man camp. He shares a dormitory-style room with a friend from Somerset who holds the same job at Sanjel.
The two take turns working either the day or night shift so sharing a room works out well, Christensen said.
His goal is to continue working in North Dakota for at least two years and work his way up to a management position, Christensen said.
Christensen is married with two daughters, ages 13 and 8. He said his wife initially didn’t want him to go to North Dakota, but the couple knew they needed to do something different financially.
It’s hard for him to be so far away, but as a truck driver Christensen typically worked 60 to 70 hours per week and didn’t see his family as often as he would have liked.
With his new schedule, Christensen works 14 days and has six days off. He said he feels like he gets to spend more quality time with his family than he did before.
“I get to spend six consecutive days with them instead of a couple hours here and there,” Christensen said.