Economic nomads adopt migration as a way of life. Texans follow jobs to the Carolinas

The smell of mesquite smoke rises from a construction site here as Texan workers cook a barbecue that reminds them of home. Beneath the empty windows of luxury apartments, Kirk Meyer, the construction supervisor, grills meat for fajitas, Susan Meyer wraps flour tortillas around guacamole and bean sauce, and a dozen men lounge in folding chairs, talking in a mixture of Spanish and English.

They talk about the food and customs and people of Texas, where the Meyers still own a house and where most of these workers still have family members. With unemployment in Houston at 11 percent and in many Texas cities higher, the best thing they could do for their families, these workers concluded, was leave.

They are economic nomads, a migratory work force created by the boom-and-bust cycle of the nation's economy. From Texas oil towns, Midwest factory towns, and the coal-mining regions of the Appalachians, some skilled workers are driving as far as 1,000 miles to find jobs.

Many resettle with their families in the booming Sunbelt or in high-growth states such as Arizona or Florida. Others, tied to their homes by an extended family or a house for which there is no market, work at temporary jobs, sending money home and visiting their families when they can.

``I got laid off, and I couldn't find anything in Texas,'' recalls Mr.Meyer in a soft drawl. ``A friend told me about this job. He said, `You're just going to sit there and roll off like tumbleweed if you don't do something.' I told my wife, `We've got to do something; I can't make the mortgage.' So we came here.''

For the last year, the Meyers have lived in a 36-foot mobile home on this construction site, where Susan runs a cleanup crew.

Some of the Texans who work with them as painters, sheetrock finishers, and brickmasons have moved their families to North Carolina; others make the grueling 24-hour drive down south every two or three months. Late this spring, when the apartment complex is finished, these workers will all be out of a job. Many of them will move on.

No one knows just how many Americans are traveling to find work; federal laws concerning migrants apply only to farmworkers.

The Internal Revenue Service estimated that between 1980 and 1984, 100,000 people moved from Michigan to Texas to find jobs. Recent estimates say that 500,000 will move out of the oil-producing states by 1990.

``Any time you have a recession, and we really have not had good economic times in a long time, for people of lower income there is a question of literally making ends meet. Some members of the family must go away to work, do the best they can,'' says Everett Lee, head of the sociology and demography department at the University of Georgia and a long-time analyst of US migration trends. ``All we know is that it is a considerable number.''

In Raleigh, where the unemployment rate is 3.2 percent and new buildings spring up every week, virtually every major construction site employs men from Texas, Ohio, West Virginia, or northern Kentucky.

For families caught in the nation's shifting economy, migration is a difficult life, chosen only out of necessity and abandoned for any real opportunity.

``We'd like to have children, but this isn't the greatest place to raise them,'' says Mrs. Meyer, looking around at the bare orange clay of the construction site. ``Kirk always says, `Let's wait,' but then I think, `wait til when?' It's a difficult decision.''

Kip Ellis, a big man who looks even larger in his ten-gallon hat, has worked in three states in the last two years, following large construction projects. Every Friday he takes $50 or $100 out of his paycheck and mails the rest to his wife in Beaumont, Texas, where unemployment is 14.6 percent.

``What else can I do?'' he asks impassively, noting that he tries to get home every few months and visits for several weeks between jobs. Last year, he says, he slept in the front seat of his pickup truck. This year he is living in a trailer that he parks on construction sites.

Rodney Wilcher slept in a utility trailer on one Raleigh construction site for three months last fall until he saved enough money to move his wife, Rita, and their three children up from Houston.

When he tried to rent a house for the family in Raleigh, the real estate agent asked him for credit references, Mr. Wilcher recalls. ``I just laughed,'' he says, describing how his family's two cars were repossessed during the months that he scrambled to find work as a truck driver, mechanic, anything.

``I said, `You might as well tear up that lease right now.'''

Some workers have fled pockets of economic distress only to watch booming areas go bust. Wilcher, originally from the mountains of Virginia, moved to Houston in 1980 to look for a job. ``I stayed about two years too long,'' he acknowledges. Since his family has moved to Raleigh, Wilcher has been laid off again, when the construction company that hired him went bankrupt. He is now hanging sheetrock for $8 an hour, $4 less than he made two months ago and half of what he once made in Houston.

Karen King of Ripley, W. Va., first moved with her husband, Troy, and their four children to Ohio 10 years ago when Troy got a job in a factory there. After he was laid off, the family followed him to a new job in Florida. After he was laid off there, the Kings decided that Karen and the children would move back to West Virginia for good.

``The kids are in school, they have friends, and we own a piece of property here,'' explained Karen, who raised the family alone for three years while Troy worked as a truck driver and then as a carpenter in North Carolina.

Even though Troy tried to get home every two or three weeks, the separation was hard. ``You've been married 21, 22 years and then the other person is gone,'' says Karen. ``It's like a death in the family, like half of your life is gone.''

Last year Troy was called to work at the Union Carbide plant in Institute, W. Va., four years after he put in his application. He now sees his family every night.

For some families forced to separate, the emotional strain can be as bad as economic hardship. Says Fern Heath, whose husband Ted commuted from Portsmouth, Ohio, to a construction job in North Carolina for five months last year, ``You got to work at a marriage, and you can't do it that way.''

Ted tried to get home every three or four weeks, but ``it's too long for a husband and wife to be separated,'' Fern says. ``We'd see each other on Saturday night and then he'd leave again on Sunday.''

With three young children and a mother sick with cancer, Fern did not see how she could leave Portsmouth, where the Heaths own their home. But with unemployment at 15 percent, Ted could not find a job there. He finally landed construction work in Columbus and now commutes four hours a day.

Children especially can have a hard time understanding and accepting a split family. ``The kids missed him terrible,'' recalls Fern Heath. ``Our little girl asked how come he didn't get fired so he could stay here.''

Rita Wilcher recalls that when Rodney was working out of state ``the kids would just cry. Even though he talked to them on the phone, they didn't understand why he was away.'' Now, even though the family is together, the children get up early to be sure they see Rodney before he leaves for work.

Anxious to keep their family together, Kay and Barry Kern and their sons Marshall, 11, and Jeremiah, 9, left Texas together last January in their 7-foot by 23-foot Dodge Explorer. They are now parked on a Raleigh construction site where Barry hopes to find a job.

``We're putting the kids in school on Monday,'' Kay says apologetically, watching the boys playing on piles of scrap lumber beside the mobile home.

``They've been out a solid month,'' Barry admits, adding that Kay is thinking of teaching them herself if he doesn't find steady work soon.

Like others, the Kerns own a house that they couldn't sell when Barry, a roofer with 20 years of experience, got laid off in Lufkin. ``A person could go to work down there at McDonald's,'' he says. ``A lot of men down there are trying to raise families on about $4 an hour.''

Lured by reports of well-paying jobs in Raleigh and Atlanta, the Kerns hit the road with their clothes, a few possessions, and $100. Until Barry finds steady work, ``We're living on beans,'' says Kay with a shake of her head.

``They're tasteless until you flavor 'em up, but you put all that stuff in them and they're delicious,'' says Barry. The kids are adaptable, he adds; they'll get along fine. But the boys, playing in the scrap from the construction site, look small and somewhat vulnerable.

Every family that moves faces the stress of settling into a new place. ``I kind of felt very lonely when we first moved here,'' Rita Wilcher admits. ``And the children are always asking for their friends.''

She notes that nine-year-old Kenny has had problems adjusting to school: ``He was a straight A student for two years in Houston, but here the first period his grades dropped. He's finally adjusting, he's making it, but it's hard.''

She adds, ``I'm one of these people that don't want to move again. Especially when you've got kids, it's not easy to keep moving around.'' She and Rodney have decided to stay in Raleigh as long as he can find any work at all.

According to demographer Everett Lee, for some families staying put may not be possible. ``We're in a period of considerable change, with old factories being abandoned, new ones being built, and services taking more of the economy. There are more reasons to keep moving.'' That trend can only produce larger bands of economic nomads.

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