The New Migrant Workers: Living on the Road in RVs, Working Temp Jobs
Ed O'Rourke typically calls Florida home, but since early December, he and his 28-year old son Eddie have been living in a 32-foot RV parked in the small town of (11,000 pop.) Campbellsville, Kentucky. A self-employed painter, O'Rourke's business has dried up over the past two years. He heard that Amazon.com was hiring for the holiday season. However, it meant picking up stakes for the month and moving to Kentucky. Desperate and and facing the sale of his home, he packed up and headed North.Since December 7, O'Rourke has been working on a packaging assembly line at Amazon's warehouse in Campbellsville, trying to clock in as many hours as he can (he earns $10.25 an hour for the first 40 hours each week and then time-and-a-half for up to 60 hours). He hopes that, come December 23 when the holiday orders are filled and his stint with Amazon is over, he can return to his mobile home in Florida, which is currently on the market because he can't afford his monthly costs.
Pumpkins, Parking Lots and Paychecks
Scattered in rural state parks and once-vacant lots throughout the country are camp workers like O'Rourke whose lives have been turned upside down by the recession. Many of these workers have lost their jobs and homes and took to the road, criss-crossing the country to wherever the jobs are: They staff pumpkin patches, Christmas tree lots, and online retail shipping warehouses like Amazon's. They home-school their children and frequently enjoy the hospitality of Wal-Marts' parking lots, knowing that many of the stores in the chain will let them park for free overnight as long as they clean up the trash and don't do anything that would draw the ire of the neighbors or police.
For companies like Amazon the system is perfect. In Campbellsville, the company erected a temporary camp on a gravel lot, providing free hookups to its seasonal workforce. It also convinced a nearby state park to extend its open season through Christmas and to frost-proof its hookups. The company pays the state the $18 per night site fee and has hired about 500 seasonal work campers at this one location alone.
The appeal of a job at Amazon is clear: A free place to park and plug in, and some cash to hold you over to the next gig so that filling up the gas tank doesn't require a dip into savings. Amazon pays the campsite rental, sewer, electric and water. Some campers rely on electric blankets and heaters at night to stay warm, opting to save their propane. Workers can walk to work and brownbag lunch.
While seasonal work like this isn't new (retirees often use it to supplement their income in their golden years), its appeal has broadened in the recession. William Fix's 11-hour days on Amazon's receiving dock is a welcome break from his fruitless job hunt. He was laid off in 2007 from his job in the payroll department of a North Carolina school district. Unable to find another full-time job, he lost his home in a foreclosure last year. His RV isn't road-worthy, but he found someone in the Amazon camp to rent him one. When Fix's job ends on Dec. 21, he'll head to his parents in Massachusetts and spend the holidays with them. After that, he hopes to get his RV in shape and hunt for another work-camping job.
Scot Warner, 58, who collects disability and pension checks, says he and his wife could afford to just live in their 36-foot motor home full time without the Amazon job that his wife took in the receiving department. But the extra money is nice. Before becoming disabled, Warner worked as a general laborer in a manufacturing plant near Milwaukee. Once his wife's job ends on Dec. 17, they will head to Wisconsin to be near their children. Their next work-camping job isn't until March when they will become campground hosts for a state park in Wisconsin.
From Lifestyle Choice to Financial Necessity
A fair number of the work-campers are at Amazon's camp by choice.Linda and Ted Samodell, who hail from southern Utah, have lived on the road for four years now, getting better-equipped rigs each year. Their current home is a 40-footer with two slides for extra living space; it has a compact washer and dryer and can haul their motorcycle on the back.
Ted's Amazon job began in September and will run through January. He works in inventory control and "counts all day," says Linda. Ted, 70, "just likes to work," says his wife. They own a home in Utah that they keep rented out. When they were living in it, the routines got boring so they pulled together a resume and posted their availability in a news magazine for worker campers.
"We began getting calls right away. So many people were willing to hire us!" Linda says. Such news would be music to many an unemployed person's ears. "There are some young men here in their 20s who just can't find work in this economy. This is a great opportunity for them."
Steve Anderson, the co-owner and editor of Workamper News based in Heber, Arkansas, has been in business for more than 20 years and says the ranks of people who work and live in their campers has swelled to more than 500,000. For most of his subscribers, it's a lifestyle choice and not a financial necessity, he says, although he acknowledges that the average age for those who use his services has dropped from 62 to 58.
Amazon is one of his biggest advertisers. Others include the Herschend Family Entertainment Group, which runs Dollywood. The state parks of North and South Dakota also look for seasonal work campers, as does the Methodist Children's Home in Texas, which uses retirees to provide "grandma and grandpa" type counseling for the children housed there. The Army Corps of Engineers looks to fill volunteer positions with work campers.
For those hoping for paid work, Anderson suggests signing up for his website and subscription services. He has a daily hot-line and sends emails out about job opportunities as he gets them. Not every campsite has Internet service, but most public libraries do.
The tradition of work campers has been around a good long while. They regularly serve as campground hosts in state and national parks, overseeing a campground in exchange for a free campsite and utilities. Last summer in Idaho, it was work campers who kept the state's 30 park campgrounds running after budget cuts axed 27 full-time state park employees.