Pain of job losses acute in Stavanger

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Two years after the oil and offshore industry seriously started slashing jobs, the sharp pain of job losses is now really striking many of those out of work and their families. Unemployment benefits are running out for workers laid off in the early rounds of job cuts, while a crisis center in Stavanger is reporting a worrisome rise in cases of domestic violence.

Some even darker clouds have been settling over Norway's once-booming oil capital of Stavanger. Next week the city will host another large Offshore Northern Seas conference, and that will help generate business, but thousands of laid-off oil workers are still suffering. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Some even darker clouds have been settling over Norway’s once-booming oil capital of Stavanger. Next week the city will host another large Offshore Northern Seas (ONS) conference, and that will help generate business, but thousands of laid-off oil workers are still suffering. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

“Lots of people are uncertain now about whether to give up their vehicles or their homes, in order to pay bills,” Terje Amundsen, leader of the labour organization for engineers, Tekna, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).

Amundsen, age 50, is out of work himself and among those facing the frightening fact that their unemployment benefits are about to run out. Many have supported themselves on the benefits (called dagpenger) that can last for as long as two years while they looked for new jobs. The two years are almost up for thousands laid off when oil prices first took a dive in 2014.

Norway’s West Coast counties are hit the hardest, where 3,933 people had less than five months of benefits left as of July. Amundsen is still hoping he’ll find the right job in the next few months. “As long as the bank lets me postpone principal payments on my mortgage for another two years, I’ll manage,” he told DN. He said former colleagues at an oil supply firm in Stavanger who also are still unemployed “will take whatever job they’re offered. But one problem we face is that we’re told we’re over-qualified for many jobs. In addition, there are other branches that aren’t very good at giving those of us coming from the oil branch a chance.”

Stavanger suffering
Rogaland County and Stavanger, long the capital of Norway’s oil industry, have the highest numbers of unemployed.  Even though economic forecasts for Norway as a whole have improved, with signs of recovery seen for months, Rogaland and other areas along the west coast may still see increases in unemployment. As those who still have jobs in the oil industry gather in Stavanger for next week’s Offshore Northern Seas (ONS) conference, they’ll visit a more sober city keen to drum up business once again.

It’s the looming loss of unemployment benefits that’s causing the most distress at present, in addition to sharp declines in housing prices at a time when most of the rest of the country is still seeing real estate values rise. Oil industry workers who had high salaries before the oil price fell have been able to apply for a maximum of NOK 347,000 (USD 42,000) a year in benefits. New figures from state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway), however, showed that the vast majority of laid-off workers collecting unemployment pay received an average of NOK 129,000 (USD 15,700) over the past year.

It’s difficult if not impossible to live on that in high-cost Norway, and now many people who still haven’t found work face the options of relying on even lower welfare payments, some form of disability pay or support from their families. The abrupt shift in fortunes, along with feelings of being unwanted and outside the workforce, can lead to more stress.

“This worries us,” Stig Veland, leader of state welfare agency NAV’s office at Eiganes and Tasta in the Stavanger area, told DN. “Our strategy is to keep in close touch with the unemployed, orient them about the realities, what rights they’ll have when benefits run out and where the available jobs are.”

Worst off are those, many of them young Norwegian men, who dropped the final years of high school and college to go straight to work in the oil industry. Those who are now laid off lack education or professional credentials needed in many other industries. Stavanger Mayor Christine Sagen Helgø is acutely aware that many unemployed oil workers are not qualified for jobs that are advertised. Others must accept moving to areas where they can find work.

Stress can lead to violence
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was reporting on Wednesday that the stress of unemployment and financial concerns was putting new pressure on many families, and making some spouses violent. Stavanger’s crisis center reported that the number of domestic violence cases resulting in the need for shelter from abusive spouses has increased 21 percent compared to last year. The crisis center in the oil capital handled 256 cases of domestic violence in the first half of this year, compared to 195 last year.

In other cases the sheer change in lifestyle, from having an offshore spouse away working on oil platforms to being home and idle, has soured relations at home. “Some couples have perhaps survived because they weren’t together for long periods,” Monica Velde Viste, leader of Stavanger’s crisis center told NRK. “They’ve been offshore or had lots of business travel.”

In other cases, laid-off men have trouble relying on their wives’ income. “We know that difficult economic problems can make things worse,” Viste said. “Many people could earlier afford to hire household help, had child-care and two cars, and suddenly you have to watch every krone. If you had problems in your relationship before, they’re bound to get worse.”

Many can’t afford to divorce either, since that would involve setting up two homes when they can barely afford one anymore. That can leave some caught in a violent marriage. “We have taken in many who have no other options,” Viste told NRK.

Clinical psychologist Nicola McCaffrey in Stavanger has also been addressing serious issues facing uncertain and unemployed oil industry workers. See some of her advice here.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund