- Jun 2014
- Cleveland, Ohio
In the mid-2000s, Amazon had a problem. Every year, the company scrambled to find temporary workers during the peak months of hectic commerce leading up to Christmas. In some areas of the country, reliable on-demand labor was so hard to come by that it resorted to busing in workers from three to five hours away. Then, in 2008, a staffing agency came up with something new: inviting a team of migrant RVers to work at the facility in Coffeyville, Kansas.
Pleased with the results, Amazon brought in more RVers the following year, expanding the program to warehouses in Campbellsville, Kentucky, and Fernley, Nevada. Amazon gave the new initiative a name—Camper*Force—and a logo: the silhouette of an RV in motion, bearing the corporation’s “smile” logo.
Many of the workers who joined Camper*Force were around traditional retirement age, in their sixties or even seventies. They were glad to have a job, even if it involved walking as many as 15 miles a day on the concrete floor of a warehouse. From a hiring perspective, the RVers were a dream labor force. They showed up on demand and dispersed just before Christmas in what the company cheerfully called a “taillight parade.” They asked for little in the way of benefits or protections. And though warehouse jobs were physically taxing—not an obvious fit for older bodies—recruiters came to see Camper*Force workers’ maturity as an asset. These were diligent, responsible employees. Their attendance rates were excellent.
“We’ve had folks in their eighties who do a phenomenal job for us,” noted Kelly Calmes, a Camper*Force representative, in one online recruiting seminar. He elaborated: “You guys have put in a lifetime of work. You understand what work is.”
In a company presentation, one slide read, “Jeff Bezos has predicted that, by the year 2020, one out of every four workampers in the United States will have worked for Amazon.”
Camper*Force hired aggressively. Representatives went on scouting missions in more than a dozen states, setting up recruiting tables at popular RV destinations like Yellowstone National Park and the motor home mecca of Quartzsite, Arizona, where tens of thousands of RVers camp in the desert each winter. They wore Camper*Force T-shirts and handed out “Now Hiring” flyers, along with swag bearing the smiling RV logo—pads of sticky notes, beer koozies, handheld fans. They created a $50 referral bonus—later increased to $125—for existing Camper*Force workers who convinced friends to join them. In a company presentation, one slide read, “Jeff Bezos has predicted that, by the year 2020, one out of every four workampers in the United States will have worked for Amazon.”
Warehouses in other cities—including Haslet, Texas; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Jeffersonville, Indiana—began using Camper*Force workers. And as Amazon’s network of fulfillment centers expanded, the company hired trusted Camper*Force veterans to be “away team associates,” responsible for training workers at some of its new facilities.
Since it began, Camper*Force has enabled Amazon to fill thousands of seasonal warehouse positions. The company is notoriously tight-lipped, but when I asked a Camper*Force recruiter in Arizona about the size of the program, she estimated that it encompassed some 2,000 workers. That was back in 2014. And newer anecdotal reports suggest the demand for Camper*Force jobs has continued to grow. “We can really look back at the last couple years and see how applications have come in earlier and more often,” said Calmes, the Camper*Force representative, during a recruiting seminar in May. “Response this year has been just really overwhelming.”
(Note: the article is actually quite long, and well-worth a read. And it is itself an excerpt from this book:
Also, looks interesting. Just published.)
Amazon's warehouses have working conditions that are among the very worst in America, excluding flat-out illegal businesses like prostitution. The idea that the millions of Americans forced out of their homes and into RVs because of the Great Recession, men and women my age and as much as 20 years older than I, are now killing themselves for $11.35/hr., no benefits, should be appalling to us.
I like Amazon, a lot. It's a nimble, innovative company. I do not want to see it shuttered and I don't think people over 65 need Big Daddy Government telling them they cannot do physical labor if they choose.
BUT I do want the US Department of Labor to look at this aspect of Amazon's business. NO ONE in America should be worked so hard that foot, leg and back injuries are inevitable. Amazon has a right to employ people, and God bless them for doing so.
It does not have a right to CONSUME its employees. We have millions of Americans over 65 now working in conditions that would shock a 18th century coal miner.