Recession forces couples to split for work

Missing Rachel at dinner
Mike Finley and his son Jon share a meal in their St. Paul home. Finley says he misses chatting with his wife Rachel Frazin over dinner. Jon Finley says when his mom first took a job as a nurse practitioner in a remote part of Alaska, he feared she'd get hurt and that he'd lose her.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

The bad economy is creating all sorts of reluctant bachelors--at least temporarily.

Mike and Jon Finley are among them.

A letter from Rachel
Mike Finley reads from a letter written by his wife Rachel Frazin, who is working in Alaska for several weeks at a time to earn extra money.
MPR photo/Annie Baxter

Mike Finley is used to cooking meals for the family in their big Victorian house in St. Paul.

But he's not used to his wife Rachel Frazin being somewhere else at dinnertime, even if he makes light of it.

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"We make do without our woman," he joked, "while she's up among the Intuits and Eskimos and Inupiat peoples of the far North."

Finley's family is living the reverse of the old explorer stories, when men would venture out into brutal landscapes, leaving their wives and children behind.

In this case, it's the wife, Rachel, who's away. She's a nurse practitioner. Last year, she took a job at the northernmost tip of Alaska for 4 to 6 weeks at a time. Then she's home for about as long.

Rachel Frazin in Alaska
Rachel Frazin went fishing near Kotzebue, Alaska. She works in that region for four to six weeks at a time as a nurse practitioner.
Photo courtesy of Mike Finley

Frazin initially took the job to earn extra cash. The work brings in a third more money than she makes in the Twin Cities. But now the job is crucial. Without it, the family's finances would be in big trouble.

That's because Mike lost his job as a writer for a physicians association in January. Freelance work helps pay the bills, but his income is down 50 percent. And Jon, their 21-year-old son, is also out of work.

So the two men are glad Rachel has her gig in Alaska. But they miss her. Especially Mike.

"It's that deep friendship stuff. And when we're together now, I have noticed that we know that we're going to be splitting up again soon," Finley said. "It takes away some of the security or the reliability of the company that we keep. So I do miss her in that sense, and I think about her all the time."

"I think for me it's easier than it is for my husband," said Rachel Frazin.

Walrus tusk
Rachel Frazin beholds a walrus tusk in Kotzebue, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Mike Finley

She misses her husband of 35 years and her two kids, one of whom lives alone.

But Frazin said she's kept busy with her work in Alaska. She loves it. For her, the toughest point in their separation came the day Mike lost his job. She got an email from him at an inopportune time.

"It was kind of a shocking email to get, because I had just gotten into this village and I had someone who was in a trauma room who was really ill, and trying to hydrate this woman, and three other people in exam rooms waiting for me to start seeing them and I'd just walked off the plane," she said.

There's no easy way of knowing how many people are in Mike and Rachel's situation-- living apart temporarily for work. Nobody tracks these numbers.

But Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University, said it's likely this recession is prompting more couples to live separately due to the bad job market.

Busy kitchen
The kitchen at the Custard/Bierma household is a busy place a couple weeks before Michael Custard departs for San Francisco. Daughter Aubre Parsons is babysitting some neighbor boys and their son's friend is staying for dinner.
MPR photo/Annie Baxter

Hicks said the recession has hit across the board. So there's no region that's booming now, even if some industries may be healthy.

"At the individual level there are probably lots of opportunities if you're willing to relocate. There's just not one place where, say, a couple with two different occupations could easily relocate and both find jobs," Hicks said\.

So, Hicks argues, there's a good chance one spouse would leave the other behind. He said the bad housing market feeds that trend. If a couple can't sell their home easily, it makes sense for one spouse to stick around.

"Those factors together mean almost certainly that you're seeing more of this."

In addition, Hicks said, the duration of the recession, the longest since World War II, could be making workers more desperate -- and more willing to relocate temporarily.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, there are nearly 5 unemployed workers for every available job in the United States.

Mike Custard and his step-son Dylan Parsons
Mike Custard will be leaving soon for a six-month gig in San Francisco. His wife Monica Bierma, step-son Dylan Parsons, and step-daughter Aubre Parsons say they'll manage to hold down the fort while he's away.
MPR photo/Annie Baxter

Michael Custard of St. Paul is familiar with the tough job market. After 7 months of unemployment, he found some work, but the hours weren't enough.

So, early next week, he'll leave his long-time partner Monica and her two teenage children for a gig in San Francisco. That's where a six month job as a tech consultant awaits him.

"This is a promise of full time work and I absolutely had to take it from that perspective because savings only goes so far."

Before he leaves, Custard's fretting about little fires that could erupt in his absence. Over dinner with his family, he worries about what would happen if the broadband access fails.

"I'm the only one who's ever dealt with it," said Michael.

Fourteen-year-old Aubre said losing the Internet would indeed be catastrophic for her older brother Dylan.

"Dylan might die if he can't get on to Facebook," Aubre said.

But those little stresses are nothing compared to Michael's unemployment. His partner Monica Bierma said although she works full-time, she got pretty worried about the family's finances -- and about Michael's morale. So Monica supported Michael's temporary move to San Francisco.

"I was a proponent of it from the beginning," Bierma said. "He was hesitant to even be involved in the bidding process with the other group of contractors, because he didn't feel like he could be away from us. I said he should take advantage of the chance to live in a great town and do work that he likes to do and that he would be fine, that we would be fine, that we would miss him, but hopefully we could come out and visit him."

Dylan, who's 17, said he's not too keen on visiting San Francisco, and he thinks the family will get by okay. Custard's job situation and temporary move away don't seem to have made much of an impression on Dylan.

"Not particularly. There are a million other things to think about, like school, where I'm going to go to college, sports," he said.

In the Finley/Frazin household, the economy's lessons do resonate loudly. Michael Finley said as long as his wife Rachel Frazin is working in Alaska, he's applied for a temporary job in another state, too.

And that is making an impression on their 21-year-old son, Jon. He's thinking he may have to look for work far from home as well.

"I'm thinking about it. You can't make it in your own area, you find a new one. You find a better situation for yourself," he said.

Jon's mom is due home again in June.

As for Michael Custard, he leaves for San Francisco on Sunday.