Report — From the August 2014 issue

The End of Retirement

When you can’t afford to stop working

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Of all the programs seeking workampers, the largest and most rapidly expanding is Amazon’s CamperForce. It began as an experiment in 2008, when a handful of RV dwellers were hired for the pre-Christmas rush at the company’s warehouse in Coffeyville, Kansas. Pleased with the results, executives branded the program, gave it a logo — the black silhouette of an RV in motion, bearing the company’s smile insignia — and expanded it to warehouses in Campbellsville, Kentucky, and Fernley, Nevada. Over the past two years, Amazon has also begun hiring veteran CamperForce members to train workers at new distribution centers in Tracy, California; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Robbinsville, New Jersey. The company doesn’t publicly disclose the program’s size, but in January, when I asked a manager in an Amazon recruiting booth in Arizona, she estimated the number at 2,000 workers.

Workampers are plug-and-play labor, the epitome of convenience for employers in search of seasonal staffing. They appear where and when they are needed. They bring their own homes, transforming trailer parks into ephemeral company towns that empty out once the jobs are gone. They aren’t around long enough to unionize. On jobs that are physically difficult, many are too tired even to socialize after their shifts.

They also demand little in the way of benefits or protections. On the contrary, among the more than fifty such laborers I interviewed, most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered. Take fifty-seven-year-old Joanne Johnson, who was dashing upstairs last October at Amazon’s Campbellsville facility when she tripped and fell, striking her head on a conveyor-belt support bar. She was bandaged up at AmCare — an in-house medical station — and then rushed to an emergency room. The episode left her with two black eyes and nine stitches along her hairline. “They let me continue working. They didn’t fire me,” Johnson recalled warmly. And the day after she was injured, a human-resources representative visited the RV she shared with her sixty-seven-year-old husband, a former workamper. Johnson, who had promised her employers that she would never run up the stairs again, was thunderstruck: “We thought that was one of the most amazing things in the world, that he literally took time away to come to our door to see how we were doing.”

Why would a company like Amazon welcome older candidates for jobs that seem better suited to younger bodies? “It’s because we’re so dependable,” suggested Johnson. “We know that if you commit to something, you do your best to get that job done. We don’t take days off unless we have to.” (While recuperating from her head wound, Johnson missed only one scheduled workday. It was unpaid.)

Workampers Barb and Chuck Stout sit around a fire while camping in the desert outside Quartzsite, Arizona

Workampers Barb and Chuck Stout sit around a fire while camping in the desert outside Quartzsite, Arizona

Paul Sturm, a former CamperForce recruiter, agreed, testifying to the industriousness of “senior folks.” On the occasions when they seemed to be moving slowly, he recalled, it was only “because they were stopping to pick up trash on their way back to boxing up packages, which they did with a smile, for however many hours a day.” And what of the physical rigors of the job? Elderly temps often told Sturm that working for CamperForce was like having a “free fitness program.” One warehouse regular actually blogged about her “cat-food weightlifting” regimen. “Made me feel like crap,” confessed Sturm, who is thirty-five. He laughed and added: “Here I am in HR, and I don’t know if I could do this or not.” (When I first told him of my plan to visit CamperForce’s RV parks, Sturm said the best time would be late October, because “folks wouldn’t be quite so exhausted yet.”)

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teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.

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