Local News

Take the long way home

SEBRING - Two days a week, Eric Hanks wakes at 3:30 a.m., showers, kisses his wife and 2-year-old son, and commutes 130 miles from Lake Placid. The drive time to Boca Raton is 2.5 hours, and his shift doesn't start until 7:30 a.m., but he could run into a traffic jam. He did last week.
"The biggest reason? It's impossible to both be both a paramedic and a fireman in Highlands County. Boca offered me both."
In May, Will Bennett started working with Brooks International, a management consulting firm. On Sunday afternoons, he heads a rental car in the opposite direction.
If he's lucky, he'll catch a 2.5 hour direct flight from Orlando International. If he's routed through Charlotte or Atlanta, it might take 4.5 or six hours. When he gets to Chicago, he rents another car.
"I usually get into the hotel anywhere from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sometimes, it's midnight."
Those are extreme commutes, of course, but they're not uncommon.
"I have two jobs," Noah Connell wrote on Facebook. He drives to work for the Hollywood Fire Department, and to Punta Gorda to fly with Aeromed. Respectively, they are 134 miles and a mere 63 miles away from Lake Placid.
Heartland Workforce serves Highlands, Hardee and DeSoto counties, which totals 60,000 workers. Twenty-eight percent of those workers commute to other counties, they told the U.S. Census in 2010. More than 2,800 motor to Polk County, 1,200 to Charlotte or Hillsborough counties, and 1,110 to Miami-Dade.
Like Bennett, 807 in the tri-county area work out of state; 103 of those commute from the Heartland Workforce region to Georgia.
Commuting is a two-way street, of course. Census stats show 16,407 workers drive to Highlands County, 4,752 to Hardee, 4,241 to DeSoto.
About 3,900 come from Polk County to the three Heartland counties, 2,337 from Lee County, and 1,815 from Miami-Dade.
Among U.S. workers, 8.1 percent had commutes of 60 minutes or longer in 2011, the Census says.
"Workplace information is crucial for understanding the degree of interconnectedness among our nation's communities," Brian McKenzie wrote for the U.S. Census in the January 2013 report County-to-County Commuting Flows: 2006-10. "Commuting plays an important role in the larger interchange of people, goods, services, and information across places."
Commuting in the Heartland Workforce regional is typical, McKenzie indicated. During the 2006-2010 period, 27.4 percent of U.S. workers traveled outside their residence county for work during a typical week, compared to 26.7 percent in 2000. Small counties and county equivalents dominate the list.
However, the greatest number of commuters in Florida - 115,000 - drive from Broward County to Miami-Dade.
Like Hanks and Bennett, 61 percent of long-commute workers drive alone.
With a changing employment landscape, some U.S. commuters are traveling longer times and distances to get to work. A 2012 study by Moss and Qing noted super commuters who travel long distance by air, rail, car, bus or some combination. "Extreme commuters are also growing, defined as workers who travel 90 minutes or more to work, one-way."
"I'm now over 150,000 frequent-flyer miles across four airline reward programs, and I'm in the top tier of two hotel chain loyalty programs," Bennett said. "I look at flying the same as riding the bus to work. I've acquired pre-check, so that I spend less than five minutes in the security lines, and I've earned enough status to grant me early boarding and frequent first-class upgrades. These perks make travel much more comfortable and have changed my perspective on both hotels and flights."
Both Bennett and Hanks make significantly - they both used that same word - more money by commuting than they did in Highlands County, which pays the lowest wage among the 26 Florida workforce regions.
"My first assignment was in Seattle," Bennett said. "I hit 30,000 frequent flyer miles within five weeks. I've worked in Los Angeles for a month, and then spent three months traveling between Birmingham, Ala., Jackson, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark."
And travel has its rewards, Bennett found: "Some great and notable restaurants like Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Miss., known for the No. 1 porterhouse in the U.S., and How to Cook a Wolf in Seattle, Wash. That's a foodie's dream come true."
But good food isn't a fair trade for the lonely road.
"Long weeks of travel do take a toll on me," Bennett confessed, "as I miss time with my family."
He has a wife and three kids: one in college, one in high school, and a toddler. When he's home, they go to movies, to dinner, walk around the lake, or just hang out at the house.
"I've had to adjust my weekend activities to have 100 percent focus on family. I focus on quality time," Bennett said.
Hanks was a full-time Sebring firefighter. "I doubled my salary when I left the city. There was no money to begin with, and then they dropped the pension."
And there's one more reason why he commutes: "Being able to do what I went to school for."
After a 24-hour shift in Boca, Hanks jumps in his vehicle at 7:30 a.m. and satisfies his Sirius music addiction on the way home.
Not so that he can rest when he gets there. He still has promises to keep. He is a paramedic with Highlands County EMS and teaches at South Florida State College.
"I'm thankful to have a job where I can teach people what I do," Hanks said.
And he's a full-time dad, so he takes his son to the park at Lake June. Like every dad, he's discovered that a 2-year-old can play on the slides for hours.