West Virginia’s Surprising Boom, And Bust, Tells The Story of Trump’s Promise To Help The ‘Forgotten Man’
Kathleen Trabert grew up in a town of diminished dreams as steel and coal jobs dried up. She spent more than a decade jumping among retail, fast food and home health aide jobs that paid so little that her family relied on food stamps and Medicaid to get by.
In 2018, Trabert landed a job that paid more than she had ever earned – $31 an hour operating machines to dig up West Virginia’s hills to lay pipelines for natural gas. The gas boom improved her life and her town’s. She booked her first big vacation in years for herself, husband and son, a Caribbean cruise. She also watched hotels spring up along the highways, and a new football field for the local high school.
“I never expected that kind of money in my life,” said Trabert, who graduated from high school but did not attend college.
Workers without a college education experienced some of the biggest job gains of Trump’s presidency ― until the pandemic hit. After years of sitting on the sidelines, these Americans began looking for work again, landing jobs in construction, warehouses, and oil and gas fields. The pace at which they found jobs even surprised some economists who had predicted that low-skill Americans would face strong head winds from automation and the opioid crisis. Yet, as unemployment fell to a half-century low and natural gas prices rebounded early in Trump’s term, companies cast a wider net in search of employees.
How much credit Trump deserves is an ongoing debate in the Ohio Valley, the part of Appalachia where West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania meet. In West Virginia, many call Trump’s first three years in office a “gold mine.”
Indeed, between Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 and March of this year, West Virginia recorded the fastest labor-force growth among the states, adjusting for population. It was a dramatic turnaround. West Virginia added nearly 37,000 jobs in that period, and the state’s unemployment rate fell below 5%, a phenomenon that has occurred only twice since the late 1970s.
Trump’s economic legacy will be written in places like the Ohio Valley, where many lifelong Democrats voted for him. Trump campaigned on helping the “forgotten man,” which to him appeared to mean White workers without college degrees. In February, many in the Ohio Valley said their lives had improved financially during Trump’s first term. But the coronavirus recession and plunging gas prices have thrown people out of work and once again made this region’s future uncertain. The question on many people’s minds: Will the good times return?
The Washington Post initially interviewed more than 30 workers and business owners in West Virginia and nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio in February, when many Americans rated the economy as the best since the 1990s. Then the coronavirus struck. When The Post spoke to these workers again in October, about a third said their fortunes had declined, and only one reported noticeable improvement. While many here in the Ohio Valley still plan to vote for Trump, people are on edge.
“Nobody’s drilling, nobody’s fracking, there’s no pipe being laid,” said Stacy Leonard, 43, a truck driver who lives in Bridgeport, Ohio, just across the river from West Virginia. “I don’t know if this area’s going to pick back up or not. I’m hoping.”
Many of the gains have been wiped away in the midst of the deadly pandemic and steep economic downturn. West Virginia lost all of its job gains under Trump and now has 30,000 fewer jobs than when the president took office. The state’s unemployment rate stood at 8.6% in September, just shy of where it was at the height of the Great Recession.
West Virginia’s backslide is a telling example of how devastating this recession has been on people who cannot work from home. Nationwide, labor force participation among Americans without college degrees has sunk to its lowest point on record during this recession. And that’s especially true in West Virginia, where nearly 80% of the workforce lacks four-year college degrees.
Throughout the Ohio Valley, most people can name friends or family members who are out of work. They report that hotel parking lots and RV parks that were full of pipeline workers a year ago have emptied out.
Trabert’s mother-in-law lost her secretarial job when the pandemic hit. Trabert has kept her job on a maintenance and repair crew, but new pipeline and drilling activity has almost stopped. Every day she goes to work, she thinks of the 950 other members of the International Union of Operating Engineers in West Virginia – nearly a quarter of the membership – who no longer have jobs.
“For some, the economy is doing great, but for others it’s not because there isn’t enough work for everybody,” Trabert said. “I’m very blessed to be working right now. It’s been very, very slow with covid and being an election year.”
For decades West Virginia had been an economic punchline, ranking at or near the bottom in many economic indicators, including jobs and wages. The state’s fortunes were yoked to the coal industry, which has been locked in a long, sputtering decline. The “knowledge economies” that sprang up on the country’s coasts mostly missed West Virginia, which has the lowest percentage of college graduates among the states.
People began fleeing the state. West Virginia’s population peaked at around 2 million in 1950, when the state’s coal mines employed about eight times as many workers as they do today. Though West Virginia has had boom-and-bust cycles since, Census Bureau data shows it has lost population every year since 2012 and now has about 1.8 million residents.
And far too many who stayed ended up becoming casualties of opioids or alcohol, part of a growing number of “deaths of despair.” West Virginia’s other claim to fame has been the highest drug overdose death rates from 2014 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the Ohio Valley, many refer to the past three decades of coal-mine and steel-mill closures as an endless depression. The state had a particularly rough time during Obama’s second term as more than half of West Virginia’s underground coal mines closed, leaving just 68 mines by 2016, down from 160 in 2012. In those years, West Virginia almost always had the slowest job growth in the nation, according to Labor Department data.
As the jobs disappeared, so did hope.
Mike Lilley, 59, grew up West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, the hilly sliver of state that juts up between Ohio and Pennsylvania. For most of his career, he drove a milk truck and felt lucky to have work.
“It seemed like we were still in the recession from the 1980s in this area,” Lilley said. “The economy was getting worse and worse. You were just seeing grown men battling for jobs against teenagers.”
As higher paying jobs in steel mills and coal mines vanished, the jobs that remained often were in restaurants, elder care, home health services and call centers – all of which paid well below the national average. As a result, before the pipeline boom, West Virginia typically ranked among the bottom five states for average weekly earnings, Labor Department data shows.
In 2016, West Virginia ranked as the only U.S. state where the majority of the population was White and had high school diplomas or less. Trump’s message to forgotten men and women resonated deeply. The state gave Trump his second biggest margin of victory behind Wyoming.
West Virginians enjoyed one of their biggest-ever boom periods shortly after Trump took office. Jobs picked up, as did wages. By the end of 2018, the average worker in the state was making $894 a week, a fatter paycheck than those in a dozen other states.
Some credit the Trump administration’s relaxing of regulations on oil and gas development and expediting of pipeline approvals. Equally helpful was a jump in natural gas prices, which climbed above $3 per 1,000 cubic feet in 2017, spurring energy companies to expand throughout the area. Nearly 75% of the job growth in the state was related to energy, according to economist John Deskins of West Virginia University.
Drilling in West Virginia’s slice of the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves began a decade ago. And the United States has led the world in natural gas production since 2009. Yet, a new boom in West Virginia occurred around 2018, when, for one record-breaking season, there were almost 16,000 pipeline-construction workers in the state. There were so many pipeline workers that, for a few months, they even outnumbered coal miners in the state.
“There was a big surge of work when Trump became president. The first three years was just booming. It was unreal,” said Scott Watson, a truck driver in the Teamsters Local 697 union. There was so much work that his wife, Jane, left her job in medical billing to become a trucker as well.
By early 2020, West Virginia’s workforce was growing so quickly that for the first time on record, it no longer had the worst labor force participation rate in the nation, a place it had occupied since at least 1950. It overtook Mississippi and flirted with passing several other states.
Wages climbed along with the job opportunities. Truck driver Stacy Leonard went from making $10.50 an hour to $20 to $24 an hour driving for the pipeline companies. It was the same for Lilley, who said his annual income more than doubled when he switched from driving for a milk company to working for pipelines, allowing him to buy a new F-150 truck and set up a new wood shop in his basement.
“It’s really been a blessing to this area,” Lilley said. “We needed it. We needed something. This area was growing stagnant.”
The influx of workers and money into the Ohio Valley helped local businesses like Pete Yochum’s dry cleaners and laundromats. Yochum quickly learned many pipeline welders wanted their uniforms starched so much that the workers would have to lie flat in bed and kick their legs to get their pants on. That much starch acts as a flame retardant – sparks bounce right off the uniforms.
“Those pipeline guys made us a lot of money,” Yochum said.
Beyond jobs, many in this rural area turned their properties into RV parks or apartments for pipeline workers. Some leased their land to natural gas companies. Rental homes that used to go for $400 a month suddenly were fetching $800 monthly from pipeline workers, several landlords told The Post.
Ricky Whitlach leased some of his 150 acres in the hills outside Moundsville to a gas company in 2017. He got a $12,000 check last month and a $103,000 check in August from the gas companies. By the end of the year, he’ll have paid off his home, his son’s home and all of their car loans.
“As long as they keep sending me a check, I’m happy,” said Whitlach, 60, a retired utility worker.
Whitlach starts most days driving his ATV around his property to check whether the bears have damaged his deer feeders. An avid outdoorsman, he hated the noise and disturbance, initially, when natural gas trucks roared by his house at all hours to construct a drilling site on top of one of his hills. They ultimately dug 10 holes and laid five small pipelines across his property.
Today, Whitlach says the hassle was worth it. Whitlach says he doesn’t like the way Trump acts but he credits the president with much of the Ohio Valley’s turnaround.
“I think Trump’s helped West Virginia a good bit,” Whitlach said. “I think Obama about killed West Virginia.”
By early 2020, there were signs that the pipeline construction “gold mine” was declining. Employment in the industry in 2019, while still at its second-highest level on record, was half of its 2018 peak. Around town, restaurants, hotels and campsites still had customers, but waiting lists were dwindling and vacancies started to appear.
West Virginia has not mastered the trick of converting its natural resource wealth into sustained economic growth – a problem known in economic circles as the “resource curse.”
“We’re more than a coal state, but I think we still need to continue to prioritize diversification,” said Deskins, the West Virginia University economist. “We have to act as quickly and aggressively as possible because the potential isn’t going to be there forever.”
Pipelining in West Virginia’s treacherous hills and hollows is a seasonal business, with many workers laid off during the winter and rehired in the spring. In February, there had been signs that hiring for the spring would be slower in 2020. Initially, locals blamed it on a presidential election year. They say energy companies are reluctant to drill new wells and lay fresh pipe when prices are low and they don’t know whether the regulatory environment will change in the near future. Then the global pandemic hit.
Many here thought their rural lifestyle would keep them safe from the coronavirus, but the economic downturn still struck hard. In March, gas prices were crushed by a global petroleum price war, making it hard for Appalachian gas wells to break even.
The industry responded quickly with deep production cuts. Just five drilling rigs were active in West Virginia for much of the summer, down from more than 20 a year before, according to the energy firm Baker Hughes. That’s the lowest oil and gas activity recorded in West Virginia since February 2000.
The Ohio Valley felt the pain.
Unemployment in West Virginia skyrocketed to 15.9%, reflecting a national trend. West Virginia initially recovered faster than most states, as it reopened quickly, but progress has been stalling. By September, fewer than half of adults in West Virginia were working.
“We already were in a downturn, then we got hit with the pandemic, and now we have an election coming up, and that always lends a certain level of uncertainty to this industry here,” said Christian Turak, a Democrat running for the state legislature and a lawyer with Gold, Khourey & Turak who specializes in gas leasing contracts. His phone used to ring constantly. Now gas companies tell him to wait.
Amy and Mark Foster, who run Creekside Camping in Triadelphia, are barely breaking even and fear they might have to close. In 2012, they turned their backyard into a campground for 17 RVs. Last year all the spots were full, with a long waiting list of mostly pipeline workers. Now there are just seven campers, mostly vacationers seeking a refuge in the pandemic.
“This has been our worst year since we’ve been open,” said Mark, 54, a former steel mill worker who now works for a natural gas company. “It’s been a backslide.”
Some here pinned their hopes for a rebound on Trump’s winning a second term. The Fosters have suggested they might have to close their campground if Joe Biden wins, citing worries that a Democratic administration could further slow the pace of drilling and pipeline construction.
Dozens of workers told The Post they feared Biden would ban new natural gas development, although Biden has said, repeatedly, he wants to ban only new fracking on federal government lands.
In the midst of the natural gas downturn, another pillar of West Virginia’s economy, coal, continues its long slide. The United States is in a rapid transition from coal-burning power plants amid concerns about pollution and climate change. Even before the pandemic hit, the coal industry already had shed hundreds of jobs since Trump took office. And now, it’s down 6,400 jobs, a decline of nearly 13%.
One way West Virginia could diversify its economy somewhat is through a proposed factory that would strip ethane out of natural gas and turn it into plastic. A Thai company, PTTGC, wants to build a gas cracking plant in Dilles Bottom, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Moundsville, W.Va. Thousands of workers would be needed to build and operate the plant, and local landlords are preparing for the influx.
After natural gas prices plunged this summer, a major foreign investor pulled out of the cracker plant project. PTTGC America said in a statement that it will make an announcement about the cracker plant’s future “by the end of this year or early next year.”
This week, natural gas prices topped $3 for the first time in nearly two years, renewing hopes in the Ohio Valley that gas energy activity will pick up again in 2021, lifting the livelihoods and spirits of those who have long felt forgotten.