No one moves to Bend to work behind a counter, and neither did Silea Kalebaugh. She grew up mostly in Central Oregon, graduated from Bend-La Pine Schools in 2013 and has struggled ever since to keep a full belly and a roof over her head.
It helps that she’s held down a job at a gas station, where she was recently promoted to night-shift supervisor. “That job’s honestly been a godsend of sorts,” Kalebaugh said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have that job. I’d be screwed.”
Jobs are easy to find in Central Oregon these days, but many of them are in low-paying industries. Retail, leisure and hospitality are still two of the largest sources of employment in Deschutes County. Health and education services is the second-largest industry, but it covers a wide range of wages with thousands of people working in low-pay settings, such as residential care.
So how do people with the least earning power survive? Roommates are a common solution. Kalebaugh and her boyfriend share a bedroom in a house occupied by three other adults. But there’s more to it than housing. People who talked with The Bulletin said they make ends meet through various combinations of public assistance, lucky breaks and constant hustling.
“We can’t take days off because if we do, we can’t pay our bills,” said Jessica Kelley, 35, who works at a mailing store to help her husband support their combined five children. “Thank God for Grocery Outlet,” she said, naming a discount grocery store in Bend. “We eat a lot of the same things over and over and over.”
Thanks to a tight labor market, many commonly held jobs are paying above the minimum wage of $10.25 per hour, Oregon occupation and wage statistics show. Cashiers, for example, are earning a median $11.08 per hour in Central Oregon.
A single adult living in Deschutes County needs to earn at least $11.91 per hour to cover expenses, such as health care, that aren’t figured into the federal government’s poverty threshold, according to the living wage calculator developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Amy Glasmeier.
Deschutes County has gone from posting some of the slowest wage gains 10 years ago to the fastest in the Pacific Northwest from 2013 through 2016, Central Oregon Regional Economist Damon Runberg said. In Bend, the average wage in 2016 was $43,869.
What’s hard to detect is how much of that stems from people getting raises, and how much is from higher-paying jobs being added to the local economy, Runberg said. “Sometimes we overstate a jump in the average wage as benefiting everyone.”
After her marriage three years ago, Kelley had an opportunity to move to Pendleton or Hermiston, where a lower cost of living would have allowed her husband’s construction-industry wages to stretch further. She has a heart condition, so she chose to stay in Bend near her doctors. They couldn’t afford a house, and finding an apartment was equally impossible, she said. Kelley said she’s lucky to have found a manufactured home on a rented lot in Fox Hills.
The payment plus lot rent is affordable at $1,000 a month, she said. “Our electric is more shocking than anything,” she said.
The Bend life can be a grind, but Noah Campana, 37, is trying to claw his way out.
When he first moved to Central Oregon seven years ago, he worked as a home-health aide, where the median wage is $11.61 an hour. He went to school to become a paramedic, and now he’s an emergency room technician at St. Charles Bend. Next he plans to go back to school to become a nurse. Nurses are earning a median $42.71 an hour in Central Oregon, according to the state.
Campana has seen several of his colleagues at St. Charles get into nursing. Beyond the pay, he’s excited about the opportunity to advance in a profession. “You can do anything, and that’s just in our organization,” he said.
Landing the job at St. Charles was a game-changer for Campana. He still picks up odd jobs to help make ends meet, but because he works at the hospital, he can afford to buy health insurance for himself and his three biological children. Grossing about $2,300 a month, he also pays for rent on an east-side house, about $1,300 a month, other bills and groceries. “It’s tight sometimes,” he said. “A lot of times I’m making payment arrangements.”
Campana said he lives by the assumption he’ll fall through the cracks, so he’s persistent. It’s how he got into his rental house after being seventh on a waiting list. And it’s how he finally got a job at St. Charles after five years of applying. One day he went into the building and decided not to leave until he’d talked to someone in human resources. “I said, ‘I will scrub blood off the ceiling if you guys hire me,’” he recalled.
People can’t move into higher-paying jobs unless they’re being added to the economy. The Bend-Redmond metro area saw the second-fastest job growth in the nation in 2017, one of the major reasons the Milken Institute named it the “best performing” small metro area for a second year in a row.
Taking advantage of those opportunities requires some sacrifice, or a safety net.
Kalebaugh plans to go cosmetology school this spring, and she’s counting on her roommates for support. They’ll let her continue living in their east-side house, contributing what she can to the $1,350 monthly rent, she said. “It’s the fact that we’re all there. We’re all in it together.”
Although Kalebaugh grew up in the region, she doesn’t have family to fall back on. Her mother is disabled, and her younger siblings are equally on their own. Until she inherited her grandmother’s car, she struggled to show up to work on time. That’s why she’s so loyal to her bosses. “They’re good people. They’re willing to work with you, if you show the effort.”
Erin McClure has already changed careers once, after she was laid off from an accounting job during the recession. She said she chose to become a certified nursing assistant because there will always be demand for the work. McClure knows she can’t save enough for retirement at her current wage, but at 43, she can’t wait forever for an opening in the local nursing program. She might have to leave Bend to go back to school. “I don’t see any other way. I can’t live the rest of my life on the wages I’m making now.”
With her night-shift pay bump at St. Charles Bend, McClure said she makes $16.50 per hour. She rents a studio apartment, which she found through a friend, for the “amazing” rate of $600 a month. She doesn’t have cable, keeps her thermostat set at 60 degrees and often eats at the hospital, where there’s an employee discount.
She said she loves her job. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. Working in the cardiac department, she holds patients’ hands as they die and hears praise for helping them through recovery. “There’s a misconception about what we do,” she said. “People consider us professional bathroom helpers.”
Kelley has no plans to leave her job at The UPS Store. “I’ve worked many places, and I’ve never felt more appreciated,” she said of the store owner, Jerry Williams.
And it’s important for her to work since her husband switched careers, giving up $4 an hour in pay. Currently only her kids, who are on the Oregon Health Plan, have insurance, but that could change as her husband progresses in his new job at a biotech company. “So there is opportunity on his end,” Kelley said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, email@example.com