Now This Is a Tough Commute

Times Staff Writer

Like thousands of other California workers, Ann Inman spends more than two hours getting to work, trekking westward from her suburban dream house to a high-paying job closer to the urbanized coast.

But Inman isn’t battling bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 101 Freeway. She’s aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to San Jose, preparing for the first of eight days of mostly 10-hour shifts as a trauma nurse at Stanford University hospital.

When she’s not at work, she crashes in a shared, no-frills, one-bedroom apartment near campus, 350 miles and a state line away from her husband back home.


“It’s very intense for me, especially because I don’t like to fly,” said Inman, 60. “But I can make more money here than anyplace else, and I’m kind of getting used to it.”

Blame a decade of soaring home prices in the Silicon Valley and other parts of California for the proliferation of what could be dubbed sleepover commuters. Working in a wide range of professions and trades, all that many of the new extreme commuters have in common are flexible schedules and a cheap place to stay when they’re away from home, typically with friends or in one of the “commuter rooms” being advertised in the Bay Area.

Long commutes are nothing new to Californians. Historically high home prices in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles have fueled the growth of such far-flung areas as Hollister and Hemet and made herculean freeway commutes of two hours or more each way almost routine. According to federal statistics, San Francisco and Los Angeles are among the 10 U.S. cities with the most long-distance commuters.

But now some people are opting to keep their jobs in the Golden State while buying a house hundreds of miles -- or even two or three time zones -- away.

“Most of our members are younger guys who can’t afford to live in San Francisco or even Oakland anymore,” said John Ford, the dispatcher for Ironworkers Local 377, which now has members who live as far away as Yreka, near the Oregon border, about 300 miles from the Bay Area.

“They’re forced to go out there if they want to own a home,” Ford said.

The practice is becoming more widespread, said Patricia Mokhtarian, a UC Davis commuting expert, “and that’s quite fascinating.”

It’s not surprising that San Francisco and the high-tech havens south of the city are at the forefront. At $26.23 an hour, the average wage in the Bay Area remains high compared with the national average of $18.09, according to the most recent figures, from 2004. That’s an increase of 19% since 2000. But it has been dwarfed by the run-up in home prices, which in San Francisco have risen 60% in the last six years.

When the median home price hit $731,000 in San Mateo County last year, Inman despaired of finding a home she could comfortably afford, even on her six-figure income. Rather than leave a job she loved, and unwilling to endure grinding freeway commutes from cheaper exurban developments, Inman abandoned her rented Mountain View home and bought a house she could afford two hours away -- by plane.

Like California and most other states, Nevada is short of nurses. “But they’re not willing to pay,” said Inman, who figures that taking a job in Nevada would cut her annual pay in half. One key piece of that calculation: In California, Inman gets half her workweek hourly wage of $65 for time spent on call -- money she can earn even while sleeping. The comparable rate in her adopted home of Mesquite, Nev., is $2 an hour.

In housing, the disparity works in the opposite direction. Inman paid $450,000 to custom-build a 3,000-square-foot home with three bedrooms, an office and a separate guesthouse. It sits next to the No. 4 fairway of the local golf course where her husband works part time. The same house would cost $1.5 million in the Silicon Valley, and that’s without the golf.

Inman spends $400 a month flying between Las Vegas and San Jose, where she keeps a car. Factoring in her $500 share of the Sunnyvale rent and the Nevada mortgage, Inman and her husband are spending nearly $2,000 a month more than they did living in California. But at least they will own a house when she retires, and a lot nicer one than a $4,000 monthly mortgage payment could get them in the Bay Area.

“It’s beautiful,” she said of her Nevada home, so beautiful that she hates to leave. But once she lands back in California, Inman said, she’s happy enough with her second life.

She works evenings during the week, getting off at 11 p.m. She is on call many of those nights and on weekends. If she is called in, she gets time and a half.

When her pager doesn’t beep, Inman goes to her old church in Mountain View and sees friends and her son, a San Francisco financial consultant, which helps compensate for the time she spends away from her husband.

“We go see movies or art shows and eat someplace fun,” she said. “Recently it’s been vegetarian restaurants.”

She shares her one-bedroom crash pad with a colleague who comes in from Phoenix for a week at a time. Other Stanford nurses fly in from Salt Lake City and from Alabama, likewise staying cheaply nearby.

It’s not just nurses who are on the move. The self-employed, whose ranks have grown since 2000 and who often have flexible schedules, account for a significant number of sleepover commuters.

Among them are many hairdressers, who have the added advantage of knowing that their clients will need them on a regular but infrequent basis -- say every six weeks.

In just one small San Francisco Mission District salon, Vertical Clearance, four hairdressers have moved hundreds of miles away but still work there.

One of them, Tim Fahrer and his partner, a Web designer, recently traded the grit of urban living for a four-bedroom home in Cocoa Beach, Fla., that cost about half a million dollars, the same as their San Francisco condo, which they have since sold.

Working one week a month in San Francisco while staying with friends, Fahrer uses the rest of his time to remodel his house in Florida and build a hairdressing practice there.

“I don’t make as much money [as before], but my money goes farther,” said Fahrer, 38.

Like others, he said he would be sad to leave San Francisco entirely, but would contemplate doing so. The current setup, he said, is a sort of trial separation.

In San Francisco and elsewhere, the propensity of rank-and-file government workers to move away has become so pronounced that it has caused a political flap or two. Critics say there won’t be enough firefighters, paramedics and other first responders in a major emergency. Government officials counter that employees aren’t paid enough to live where they work.

Firefighters and city paramedics work 24-hour shifts that can be traded to run consecutively, and they get a place to sleep while on call in the station house.

At least 65% of the 1,700 members of the San Francisco fire department live outside the city limits, and some dwell as far away as Los Angeles and San Clemente, spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said.

Five of them give out-of-state home addresses, including one in Maryland, and others list local addresses or post office boxes but live elsewhere.

Capt. Michael Whooley, 47, said he would prefer to stay in San Francisco but couldn’t persuade his wife to trade in their 4,200-square-foot house in Apple Valley, Minn. -- bought in 2003 for $350,000 -- for a “shack” in California.

Whooley said he wouldn’t recommend his schedule for most people, given the strain on his family. “I fall asleep on the plane in Minnesota and wake up in San Francisco,” he said. “There’s definitely a disconnect on both ends.”

That’s typical of sleepover commuters, University of West Florida sociologist Ray Oldenburg said, and many of them are getting more stress than they bargained for.

“It’s disruptive of family life,” he said. “In social science, if you go back far enough, everyone was heralding the infinite adaptability of the human being. And I never bought that.”

Cab driver Mike Wilson, who may have pushed adaptability about as far as it can go, agreed.

An extremist among extreme commuters, the former Teamster is among the 10% of San Francisco’s active taxicab drivers who give an address outside the state.

For cabbies, a move away works because they can still make money in absentia. Most who have the sought-after city taxi permits known as medallions are required to drive 800 hours yearly. That leaves plenty of time to lease their medallions to other drivers, said Taxicab Commission Executive Director Heidi Machen.

Wilson, born and raised in San Francisco, moved in the mid-1990s to Reno, where he bought a 2,700-square-foot house for $190,000. When his San Francisco medallion came through in 1998, though, it made financial sense for him to return to the city to drive.

He spends Sunday through Wednesday in his mountain home with four bedrooms, three bathrooms and two fireplaces.

The rest of the week, Wilson is in San Francisco, driving at night, when fares are higher, and sleeping during the day on a mattress inside a blue 1989 Plymouth Voyager minivan that he parks in Metro Cab Co.'s fenced lot. He puts cardboard over the windows to block out the sun, and Metro lets him shower and shave in the office.

“I’m kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde,” said Wilson, 64. “I live in a house of granite and marble, and half the time I sleep in a van like a homeless person.”