CODY — Workers in Wyoming’s struggling construction industry have had little good news so far in 2011, and matters took a turn for the worse last week when the U.S. Commerce Department announced that new home sales in February had dipped to the slowest pace on record.
Besieged by continuing foreclosures, existing home prices sank to their lowest level since December 2003.
For home builders and others in the construction trades around Wyoming, that means a surge in new home building this spring is unlikely, as buyers and sellers continue to struggle through a stagnant market for existing homes.
Sales of new single-family homes fell by 16.9 percent in February, the lowest level since 1963, when the government began tracking such records.
February saw the lowest number of new houses built since 1984, according to Commerce Department figures. New home construction starts were down 22.5 percent from January, just .5 percent above the record low rate set in April 2009.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate for the construction sector was 21.8 percent in February, more than twice the national average jobless rate for all industries, said David Bullard, senior economist with the Wyoming Department of Employment’s Research & Planning Section.
Wyoming doesn’t track unemployment by industry sector, but it’s likely the state’s construction industry is seeing relative jobless rates “similar to the pattern at the national level,” Bullard said.
That would mean a construction industry jobless rate in Wyoming of well over 10 percent, based on the state’s overall unemployment rate of 6.2 percent in February, the most recent month for which figures were available
“The outlook for construction in general nationwide is still very dismal. In Wyoming, we’re certainly in a downward trend right now,” said Shawn Warner, division manager of Sletten Construction of Wyoming.
A major commercial construction firm with offices in Las Vegas; Phoenix; Great Falls, Mont.; Boise, Idaho; and Cody, Sletten has cut its Wyoming workforce by more than 50 percent over the last 2 1/2 years, Warner said.
Those lost jobs had paid a base hourly wage of $16.50 for inexperienced laborers and $25 and up for carpenters, he said.
Wyoming construction workers are “in a very, very difficult market right now,” Warner said.
“There’s not a week that goes by when we don’t have multiple résumés from all different time zones,” he said.
Unemployment rates have fluctuated in Wyoming since the start of the recession, but the number of those using food stamps has generally continued to climb, said Jacqueline Herb, with the Wyoming Department of Family Services.
In June 2008, there were 9,411 households in the state participating in the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, Herb said. By June 2009, that number was 12,080 and in June 2010 it was 14,709. Last month, 15,628 households composed of 39,649 people in Wyoming received food stamps.
“As the economy started to take a turn for the worse and jobs were lost, more and more people turn to programs such as SNAP to make ends meet. Often the unemployment a person will get is much less than what the person is used to earning due to caps on what one can get on unemployment,” Herb said.
“We have seen more and more middle class households applying for assistance, many who have never had to do this before,” she said.
Worker advocates say programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits have offered a much-needed safety net that has helped hold working families together during the worst recession since World War II.
Cody home builder Nick Randol said he has struggled over the past two years to keep his business going.
“There’s a lot of people who will tell you the same thing about how they were rolling full speed two years ago and now are closing down or really competing for the very little bit of work there is out there,” he said.
So when the Legislature in February voted down a bill to provide up to $38 million in federal funding for extended unemployment benefits, job training and other assistance to Wyoming workers, many in the construction business were disappointed.
Tim Wells, a retired construction worker who lobbies the Legislature for the Wyoming Building & Construction Trades Council, said he was disturbed by how some representatives referred to unemployed workers during floor debate of the measure.
“They acted like these were a bunch of worthless people that don’t want to work, and that’s just not the case,” he said.
“If you’re a carpenter or an iron worker making $22 or $30 an hour, does anybody really think these guys want to sit at home and collect $300 a week on unemployment?” Wells said.
During floor debate on the measure, Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, said, “I fail to see how paying people not to work is going to reduce unemployment.”
“I think the compassionate thing to do is make it difficult for people who don’t have a job so they go out there and hustle to find one,” he said.
A provision of the bill that would have allowed unemployed workers to receive state-approved job training was particularly attractive to construction employers, said Jonathan Downing, executive vice president of the Wyoming Contractors Association in Cheyenne.
Downing, who lobbied in favor of the bill, said the association owns and operates the McMurry Training Center.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are still unemployed, and this would have given them the opportunity to get their heavy equipment certification or a commercial driver’s license, which would make them much more appealing in the marketplace,” he said.
“Having workers better trained is a benefit to employers,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, who sponsored the bill.
Connolly said she regretted learning late in the legislative session about additional funds for worker benefits approved by Congress in December, which left little time for her to develop a bill and to build support for it.
Critics of a federal funding stipulation in the bill that would have precluded a sunset provision were incorrect in claiming it amounted to an open-ended commitment to increased state spending, Connolly said.
The federal money would have been provided at no cost to the state, she said, and would have lasted 1-3 years, depending on the benefits and programs in question.
“Our job as a legislative body is to have oversight. If something is not working, we stop it,” she said. “We could have passed a bill next year that stopped it.”
Connolly said the bill was complex, but carefully crafted.
She said it was disappointing to see the bill fail, and that if five legislators had switched their votes, it would have advanced.
Public records compiled by WyoFile show that five representatives who opposed Connolly’s bill — along with Gov. Matt Mead, who said he agreed with the vote against the bill — benefited from a combined total of nearly $2 million in federal farm subsidy assistance since 1995.
“I honestly wish that the thought that goes behind accepting that kind of federal subsidy can be extended to other (benefits) that perhaps are not seen in similar circumstances,” Connolly said.
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