Energy Boom In Wyo. Increases Wages, Inflation

The third of an occasional series called "The Money Map," which looks at how global economic forces are shaping the economies of America's hometowns.

Mary Sawaya owns a shoe and clothing store in Kemmerer, Wyo., where the economy has grown in conjunction with rising natural gas prices.

Over the past five years Sawaya, who sells Carhart work clothes to people in the energy fields, has seen a 50 percent increase in business.

"About 10 years ago, [the energy industry] was in a slump. And then when Williams Field built their second plant and [Enterprise Products Partners LP] came in, and all this oil and gas cycling came through ... our business went way up," Sawaya says.

Those new energy fields have helped job growth in Wyoming become the strongest in the nation over the past few months.

But that's not necessarily good for all businesses in Wyoming, reporter Elsa Partan tells Steve Inskeep. Job growth in the energy industry is pulling jobs away from the service sector. Hotels around energy fields are having a hard time finding reliable help, and fast food restaurant managers are putting in long hours themselves and closing up shop after dinner.

This job competition has increased wages around the state, which has, in turn, pushed inflation up. Nationwide, inflation is about 5 percent; in Wyoming, it's 8 percent. And that has hit some residents, such as Annette Richards, hard. Her husband, who works in the energy fields, has seen his wages increase, but Richards says much of that increase has been offset by rising food prices.

"I mean, groceries went from $250 to $350 now," she says. "So I pay an extra 200 bucks every two weeks for groceries for the same stuff I always buy. We're barely making it."

While average people seem to be eking by, state coffers have been swelling. Wyoming has a record $571 million budget surplus, which has allowed it to eliminate a food tax.

Wyoming still has no income tax, and the extra revenue from skyrocketing fuel prices has allowed the Cowboy State to infuse its higher education system with cash. As long as a high school student can maintain a 2.5 GPA, the state will cover 45 percent of all tuition and fees at the University of Wyoming or a number of community colleges around the state.

Elsa Partan reports for Wyoming Public Radio.

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