Oil well workover specialist Russ Ramer switches on his television several times a day to check just one piece of news. Not the stock market, not the latest presidential election polls; he wants to know the price of a barrel of oil.
Ramer, out of work since August because of the industry’s downturn, is not interested in the oil market just for himself. While it’s true he was neither planning nor necessarily prepared for his sudden retirement at age 62, more importantly, he is the patriarch of a three-generation Bakersfield oil family whose fortunes are very much tied to the industry.
The 70 percent drop in oil prices since mid-2014 put his stepson, 47-year-old workover crew superintendent Pat McGonigal, out of work last summer. Since then he has lost his home and his Corvette. The Harley-Davidson will go next.
Ramer’s grandson Scott Tootle has managed to stay employed in oil, but only because he agreed to a 50 percent pay cut and is willing to drive nearly two hours each way to a night job in Ventura County.
Thousands of local workers are in the same boat, their hopes rising and falling with the fluctuating price of oil. At least 2,500 Kern County residents — likely many more — have been let go since December 2014, hurting everything from the local home and office market to county spending on fire protection and law enforcement.
Ramer sees the impact everywhere.
“If that oil ain’t happening, nothing’s happening,” he said. “It’s going to go all the way down to the guy selling cigarettes at 7-Eleven.”
The situation has already hit home in a big way for Ramer, whose brother-in-law, uncle, two grandsons and granddaughter all have careers in the oil industry.
Ramer worked for 44 years in oil fields from North Dakota to Venezuela. Until the downturn, he was earning more than $300,000 a year as a consultant to local oil producers in need of workovers, which unlike drilling work involve overhauling existing oil wells.
Even though he and wife, Patt, have socked away money and live in a modest home at Bakersfield’s Royal Palms Mobile Park, the suddenness with which the oil slowdown hit meant Patt, a housewife, had to give up her supercharged Jaguar XKR sports car. Now she drives a Chrysler PT Cruiser.
Ramer said he wasn’t expecting to retire for another four years. Even now he keeps open the possibility of returning to the oil fields if and when prices recover strongly.
What dismays the Ramers lately is that many in the industry seemed to think oil would stay at the $100-a-barrel level, which it did for more than three years starting in 2011.
Patt said she knew it wouldn’t last, and Russ, who recalls the days when a barrel sold for less than $10 a barrel, wonders whether prices will ever reach triple digits again.
Not that he doubts prices will rise. The other day, sitting in his favorite chair in the Ramers’ living room with his family around, he projected an unshakable confidence that good times in the oil field will return, and that it’s only a question of when.
“It’s going to get better. It’ll get better,” he said. “It’s just going to take a while.”
LOOKING FOR WORK
The situation is different for his stepson, McGonigal, who as a mid-career rig supervisor had never been laid off in more than 21 years in the oil fields.
Inspired by Ramer and without a college degree, he worked his way up from earning $6 an hour to what was until recently a comfortable living.
Now, McGonigal says, he can’t even get a job at McDonald’s because he’s overqualified. He spends his days following up with professional contacts in hope of getting a lead on work.
Meanwhile, he’s burning through his savings.
“Everything I worked for the last 30 years is gone,” he said.
Last year McGonigal’s youngest son told him he wanted to leave college at age 19 to go work in the oil fields. This was after oil had begun its slide and layoffs were spreading locally.
McGonigal strongly advised his son against going into oil — persuasively, apparently: His son ended up enlisting in the Air Force.
“You don’t want your kids to struggle,” he said.
WORKING THROUGH IT
Tootle started working in local oil fields three days after leaving the Navy. “Been there ever since,” he said.
The downturn in oil cost him his job as a rig manager and forced him to file for personal bankruptcy protection. He works now as a rig hand.
Tootle is grateful for his job in Simi Valley, he said, even though it requires him to drive almost daily from Bakersfield.
“I love the work,” he said. “It’s good work. Good people.”
But he said being laid off in the oil fields is devastating to have to deal with.
“It’s hard to tell your family that, your kids that,” he said.