Housing Crash Delays Couple's Retirement Dreams

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Duke and Peggy Cox i

Duke and Peggy Cox of Palisade, Colo., are both looking for work. He was in construction, until that boom went bust. She drove a truck for an energy company, until that dried up. They're still able to piece together a life, but the luxuries are long gone, and they're worried about the future. Barry Gutierrez for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Barry Gutierrez for NPR
Duke and Peggy Cox

Duke and Peggy Cox of Palisade, Colo., are both looking for work. He was in construction, until that boom went bust. She drove a truck for an energy company, until that dried up. They're still able to piece together a life, but the luxuries are long gone, and they're worried about the future.

Barry Gutierrez for NPR

About This Series

As the U.S. struggles with a deepening recession on track to become the worst in more than two generations, the impact is being felt across all states, industries and income levels. Meet some of the faces behind America's unemployment numbers. NPR will be checking back with them periodically as they hunt for that increasingly hard-to-find commodity: a job.

The economy has thrown a wrench into thousands of Americans' retirement plans. Count Duke and Peggy Cox of Palisade, Colo., among them. He's 57 years old, and she's 60. They were planning to retire soon, but now they find themselves looking for work.

After starting out years ago as a carpenter, Duke worked his way up through the home-building industry. He went into business for himself at about the right time and in the right place. It was in Garfield County, Colo., a few years ago when oil companies were importing workers from all over the country to operate natural-gas drilling rigs.

"Business really started to pick up," Duke says. "House prices were just astronomical."

Business was so good that Peggy stopped driving semi trucks and joined the business. Then the housing market suddenly collapsed. The last house they built sat on the market for eight months in 2008. It recently sold for $265,000 — nearly $25,000 less than what they were asking.

'Just Not Enough Work Here'

Peggy went back to driving trucks to bring in some extra income. A self-described "women's libber from way back," she seemed to enjoy working in a male-dominated profession.

Oil companies have been drilling for natural gas in the surrounding counties, and Peggy got a job with a subcontractor hauling fly ash and cement for Halliburton, the oilfield services company. But as the economy declined, so did demand for natural gas — the commodity's price dropped by more than half in just a few months.

Peggy was laid off after a few months. "There's just not enough work here," she says.

Most mornings, Peggy fires up her computer and searches for work on the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment's Web site. She'd like a job that pays $20 an hour, but given the times, she puts $17 in the site's search parameters.

The search results come back: "There are no jobs that meet this search criteria," Peggy reads aloud. "Let's see, if I put $15 an hour ..."

One job comes up for all of Mesa County. It involves delivering appliances, and she can't lift that kind of weight.

A Fill-In Job That Doesn't Last

Meanwhile, Duke has landed a short-term contract job lobbying for an environmental group. On a recent Friday, he was at the state Capitol building in Denver, wearing a suit and tie and a name tag identifying him as a lobbyist with the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.

"I started out in this thing as a volunteer," Duke says. He started attending GVCA meetings after becoming worried about the environmental effects that drilling for natural gas was having on the region.

At the Capitol, he seems to move comfortably between lawmakers, activists and reporters. The GVCA hired him on contract to lobby for new rules creating tougher environmental regulations for drillers. Now, lawmakers are set to approve those rules.

"It's been kind of a fill-in job," Duke says. "And I have to tell you, today is my last day. So I'll be unemployed again after today."

The Coxes would like to get back into the home building business.

"If today is the bottom of the real estate market and tomorrow it all turns around, perhaps we could be back in the building business, just like we were, in maybe a year and a half," Duke says.

Some Savings, Some Oil Money

Until then, Peggy says they have some savings — not much, but some. They have a small home-based vitamin and supplement business that brings in some money. And they own a piece of commercial property that an oil company currently is leasing. Peggy says that's what's putting food on the table right now.

"I go between feelings of panic and [wondering] what are we going to do?" Peggy says. "I don't see retirement at all for us at this point. There does not seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. I think we will have to work."

Peggy estimates she can drive trucks for another 10 years — she'll be 70 then.

The Coxes also are looking into whether there's a future in building "green." They're thinking about constructing houses with solar panels on the roof that require little electricity from a utility. They're not sure yet if they could make that work. But without work right now, time to do more research is one thing they have a lot of.

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