Technology

‘Nomadland’ sheds mild on Amazon’s RV workforce – it truly is

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Launched in 2008, Amazon CamperForce recruits RVs and Vandwellers from all over the country to work for months during the peak business season.

Shay Martinez-Do

In 2017, Shay Martinez-Make had an identity crisis. She was pregnant with her son, and the private ambulance company she had worked for for a decade went bankrupt, suddenly leaving her without a home or work.

“I went overnight from Corporate America to a mother who stayed at home,” said 33-year-old Martinez -machen in an interview. “I didn’t know who I was.”

Inspired by her parents, who had become “full-time nomads,” Martinez -machen, her wife America, and their two children decided to take a motorhome out on the streets. That summer vacation has since grown into a year-long lifestyle, traveling around the country taking on temporary jobs for months.

But since 2017 they have been working a few months a year for one of the largest employers in the US: Amazon.

Shay Martinez -machen and her wife America Martinez live in a motor home with their two children.

Shay Martinez-Do

Martinez -machen and her wife are among hundreds of Americans who work three months a year at Amazon as part of the company’s CamperForce program. Founded in 2008, CamperForce recruits RVs and van residents for temporary jobs to add strength to the workforce during the busy vacation shopping.

While CamperForce has been around for more than a decade, the program moved into the spotlight after it was featured in the Golden Globe nominated film “Nomadland”.

The film is based on a book by Jessica Bruder from 2017 and shows Frances McDormand as Fern, who leads a temporary life on the street in her van and travels from one job to the next, including as a warehouse worker at Amazon in Nevada. Fern takes and packs prime orders before returning to her passenger car, where she folds laundry and cooks ramen noodles on a hot plate. The scenes were filmed in a real fulfillment center in Fernley, Nevada that has since closed and moved to Reno, according to Bob Wells, 65, a real-life nomad who plays himself in Nomadland.

The CamperForce experience portrayed in “Nomadland” is a pretty realistic representation of what Martinez-Do and others experience every year. CamperForce draws nomads from all corners of the country, including many older but increasingly younger and with families in tow, to a growing number of Amazon camps in Arizona, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, among others.

Only a handful of Amazon warehouses initially participated in the CamperForce program. This year, Amazon will be offering CamperForce positions in 27 facilities.

Just like the rest of the hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers at Amazon, CamperForce employees work 10 to 12 hours in sprawling fulfillment centers, packing, picking, stowing and receiving packages.

You’ll earn $ 15 an hour plus overtime paid in weekly paychecks plus an additional $ 550 grant to cover part of the cost of a nearby campground with RV hookups for electricity and water. You can also receive a “Task Completion Bonus” at the end of the season that pays 50 cents for every hour of regular hours worked and $ 1.00 for every hour of overtime worked. This emerges from a promotional video published by Amazon. Many of them wear t-shirts, lanyards and other gear with the CamperForce logo – a moving motorhome with Amazon’s famous smile.

Employees can also get access to medical and prescription benefits after 90 days. Depending on the length of their position, some workers may not be eligible.

Amazon developed the CamperForce program as a flexible work option for RVs in high season. Many CamperForce employees “return” to work at Amazon year after year, Amazon spokesman Andre Woodson told CNBC in a statement.

“We pride ourselves on our innovative CamperForce program and the opportunities it offers individuals to make extra money RV camping during the holiday season,” said Woodson.

“It gives the impression that we are homeless”

Taking up work at Amazon is usually one stop on the typical traveling worker job cycle, often referred to as “workampers,” Wells said in an interview.

“You can be a campground host in the summer. When that is over, leave almost immediately and work on the beet harvest for three weeks,” he said. “Then you go to Amazon from there.”

Bob Wells, 65, is set in Nomadland, in which Frances McDormand plays the lead role, and shows her as a van resident who does various jobs on the street, including in an Amazon warehouse.

Bob Wells

Wells, who lived in a van in 1995, never worked at Amazon despite all his years on the street. But he has met many nomads, often elderly, who have relied on CamperForce for temporary employment.

“It’s hard work. Nobody would question that,” Wells said. “You are on your feet 10 hours a day and then with mandatory overtime 12 hours a day. It’s difficult for old hips, knees and elbows.”

Wells moved into a van with very little money after a divorce. Although it was a traumatic transition, it contradicts the notion that financial hardship is the main reason nomads lead life on the streets. Once many nomads finish the six-month round of jobs, they spend time traveling. “You have the rest of the year that is yours,” he said.

Martinez -machen said she often felt that full-time warehouse workers at Amazon didn’t understand what the CamperForce program was about. Some of their employees thought that CamperForce employees “all sit around the campfire and sing kumbaya,” said Martinez -machen.

“It gave the impression that we are homeless and temporary and have no safe place to go home,” said Martinez -machen. “But my children are here with me. My house is here. I have a kitchen, a bathroom, a bed and a heater.”

Shay Martinez -machen and her wife worked for several seasons as part of Amazon’s CamperForce program, which operates in multiple warehouses across the United States

Shay Martinez-Do

CamperForce jobs are often in high demand in the workamper community, and positions are often filled within weeks of being posted online, employees told CNBC. But it’s definitely hard work.

Ryan Ginther said he wasn’t sure he would return to seasonal work at Amazon. Ginther was working the night shift on the CamperForce program last December at an Amazon warehouse in Troutdale, Oregon.

He would go to work around 6:15 pm and “work the night through” until about 6:00 pm, said Ginther, who lives in a mobile home with his wife Summer and their pug. “That was something I don’t really want to do again,” he said.

“It was so long shifts and then it was a 30-minute drive each way,” said Summer Ginther. “We didn’t see each other at all.”

Ginther said he had some physical labor experience before joining Amazon but had never worked in a warehouse. “I didn’t know what to expect, but ended up finding the job pretty easy,” he added.

Ryan Ginther and his wife Summer live in their motorhome all day long. Ryan Ginther worked at an Amazon warehouse as part of the CamperForce program, which recruits RVs for seasonal jobs.

Summer Ginther

For Martinez -machen, the transition from managing 150 employees to living on the street and working in a warehouse was much more dramatic. But five years later, Martinez-Make said she and her wife had adjusted to the workamper cycle of seasonal jobs, with Amazon serving as “the couple’s sole source of income and our plans for fall and winter each year.”

“We went back regardless of the discomfort and the sore feet and everything else that came with it,” said Martinez -machen. “I think this is a shared experience.”

Martinez-Make said she often cross paths with CamperForce employees who, despite having a hard time at Amazon, will be returning to a location in a different state the following season.

“There are people who say, ‘I hate this place, I don’t want to come back,'” she said. “And in the end they’ll say, ‘Well, where are you going next year? I’ll see you there.'”

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Katherine Clark