Family struggles to make ends meet after construction layoff

Two years ago, Roberta Koskela decided she wanted a different, more prosperous kind of life.

So she traded in her skirts and high heels for jeans, work boots and a ponytail.

She quit her general office job at a cable company, packed up her family and moved from Lake Havasu City, Ariz., to Las Vegas, where she'd heard well-paying construction jobs were plentiful, even for those with little or no experience.

Here, she joined a laborers union and quickly received training as a construction flagger and concrete core driller.

The now 37-year-old had no problem finding work making more than $20 an hour.

She also discovered she was happier than at any job she'd ever had. For the first time in her life she wasn't stressed out at the end of the day.

"I was nervous about her stepping into a man's world," said Chris Koskela, Roberta's husband of five years. "But it was like watching a rebirth."

The money also was good, and that was important. The Koskelas have four teenagers to support, and Chris, 44, hasn't been able to work in years because of multiple health issues including severe back problems and fibromyalgia. His disability benefits were just enough to cover rent on the family's cramped three-bedroom apartment in the northwest valley. Money was tight, but the family was making it.

That was until, a short year later, the recession caught up with the Koskelas.

Roberta was laid off, and has been unable to find steady work since.

"It's a lousy place to be and it feels horrible," she said. "I've never been here before."

Of course, she isn't here alone. Nevada's unemployment rate is at 13 percent. Nearly 50 percent of construction industry jobs have disappeared.

Not long ago, workers like Roberta could come to town and make more money in the construction or service industries than almost anywhere in the United States, said Jeremy Aguero, a principal in research firm Applied Analysis.

"It was lucrative for them to make that move," he said.

These days are different. Thousands of unemployed, unskilled workers are competing for a small pool of jobs. That leaves many of them agonizing about what to do next.

Should they stay in Nevada, waiting and hoping for an economic turnaround?

Though the economy will eventually recover, Las Vegas may never equal the explosive rates of growth in population and employment seen in the past 20 years, Aguero said.

"The economic engine that has worked so well for us is really kicked into reverse," he said. "Unskilled laborers have a much more difficult time adapting to new economic conditions" that may require them to switch career fields.

Many have chosen to leave, he said.

"Construction workers are going to go where construction is."

It's an option the Koskelas are not yet ready to consider.

"I've worked so hard to get to where I'm at to just walk away," Roberta said.

"How many times do you want to start over in your life?" Chris said.

Roberta believes that if she were to leave construction for another line of work in today's job market, "I'd just be on unemployment for something else."

So, for now, they wait, dodging bill collectors as they try to save enough money to file for bankruptcy.

The $400 a week in unemployment benefits that Roberta collects doesn't stretch far for a family of six.

"I don't even look at the mail anymore," she said. "I don't even want to know."

They attempt to keep most of those worries from the kids.

"It's not their job to be stressed about the economy and finances," Chris said.

Roberta uses two words to describe how she keeps her head up in such difficult circumstances: "Denial, denial."

The Koskelas also remind themselves to be grateful for what they do have: healthy kids and a roof over their heads.

"There are people a helluva lot worse off than we are," Chris said. "As long as we remember that ... ."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at or 702-383-0285.