In early September, at a campground called Buckeye Mobile / RV Estates on the outskirts of Coffeyville, Kansas, a strong thunderstorm awoke Beth LaFata. It was around midnight and rain was hammering the roof of her home, a faded blue 1979 Dodge camper van. In six hours she would have to clock in for a long day of work at a nearby Amazon warehouse. It only took LaFata a few moments to realize the rain was coming straight through her roof and onto her bed. She was becoming drenched, and within minutes her entire one-room dwelling would flood.
"It was raining inside the van as much as it was raining outside," LaFata said. "My bed was soaked. There was nothing I could do but sit there and cry until I had to go to work."
LaFata was parked at Buckeye that night because she had just recently joined what might be America's most mobile labor force. "Workampers" are mostly retirement-age migrant workers who have taken to the road in RVs and camper vans in pursuit of temporary jobs to make ends meet. Just like their truly retired counterparts, these workers travel the country, sightseeing and staying overnight in RV parks. But many workampers also depend on low-wage temp jobs like overseeing campgrounds, selling tickets at NASCAR races, or—as in LaFata's case—spending long nights packing boxes for the planet's largest e-commerce corporation.
In 2010, after being laid off from her job delivering food for Meals on Wheels outside Dallas, LaFata, then 44, embarked on a desperate job hunt. Having spent 18 years as a paralegal, she was stunned at the difficulty of finding work in the down economy. She was being rejected for jobs that would have once been considered beneath her. A number of fast-food chains like McDonald's had passed her up for cashier jobs, and her unemployment benefits were running out fast. "I sent out hundreds of applications," she told me. "I was applying everywhere—absolutely everywhere—and you can only go back so many times when they keep telling you no."
LaFata gave up the job hunt only when she managed to leave her $600-a-month apartment outside Houston for a nine-month-long housesitting stint and began making a few hundred dollars a month on freelance gigs booking bands. Yet as the months of housesitting came to an end, the idea of living in a home for which she would have to pay rent was less and less appealing. LaFata had always dreamed of life on the open road, so late in 2013 she traded her last major possession—a '92 Pontiac Firebird convertible—for the camper van she now lives in. Last Valentine's Day, her first day on the road, she slept in a Walmart parking lot.
The mobility made it immediately easier to find work. LaFata could travel to wherever a gig made itself available, and she quickly settled into a minimum-wage temp job tidying up parking spots and cleaning restrooms at a campground outside Austin. While there, she was hired months in advance by Amazon and for a major beet harvest administered by American Crystal Sugar, a company that has in recent years used temporary workers to edge out its unionized labor force. LaFata planned to work the beet harvest's grueling 12-hour days for a few weeks, then head to Kansas in October for the rest of the season. In the last week of July, when Amazon called to tell her its Coffeyville warehouse was immediately taking workampers, LaFata calculated that foregoing the beet harvest altogether would save her several hundred dollars in gas. On August 11, she arrived in Coffeyville.
The financial crisis of 2008 blindsided millions of retirement-age workers. Some saw decades' worth of savings in their 401(k)'s shrink overnight. Others who had been laid off and hadn't updated their résumés in years struggled to find anything resembling a career path amid competition from younger applicants. With so many seeking work, companies no longer needed to offer the traditional perks of stable employment or decent salaries to attract help. Since the recession, temporary work has accounted for a major portion of job gains as millions of Americans, including thousands of workampers across the country, have begun to rely on the new gig economy.
Just as the economy was collapsing, Amazon launched a pilot program in Coffeyville called CamperForce. The company had been expanding quickly and was struggling to find enough temporary workers among the local population to staff its warehouse. For more than two decades a small community of RVers had called themselves workampers, but never before had such a powerful company sought to harness their labor. The Coffeyville pilot program proved a success, and Amazon has since extended CamperForce to its warehouses in Campbellsville, Kentucky; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Fernley, Nevada. Amazon has made efforts to reach workampers in the field by sending recruiters to solicit new hires at RV conventions. By the time LaFata arrived in Coffeyville, Amazon's warehouse work had become a simple fact of the lifestyle for workampers.
For most of the laborers in Coffeyville, Amazon's $10.50-an-hour day-shift pay (or $11 an hour for night shifts) was a key draw for the long haul to Kansas. Amazon also provides workers with a free RV parking spot, and those who complete the season receive a bonus of one additional dollar for every hour they work. While workamping gigs almost always provide a comped RV spot, Amazon's base pay is among the best in the sector—a significant edge over the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour that many of the gigs offer.
Because it was early in Amazon's peak season when I visited this autumn, the warehouse was still in the process of ingesting massive batches of inventory in preparation for the wave of Christmas orders coming after Thanksgiving. In September, the workampers' nights would still be devoted to receiving and stowing this inbound freight. As Christmas neared, their jobs would shift to packing and moving a galaxy of products out of the warehouse and bound for households across the country.
Although workampers' schedules can be grueling, they are quick to express appreciation for the community and sense of belonging that their migratory life offers them. The workers at Buckeye not only lived and worked together but formed close bonds and shared a fierce camaraderie. With much help from her workamper neighbors, LaFata recently moved into a rented mobile home while she makes several much-needed repairs on her van.
Workampers' zeal for the lifestyle can become almost evangelical. On my first afternoon with LaFata, we spoke until nearly 5:00 PM, when Buckeye's dusty lanes became busy with trucks heading out for the night shift. Jeanne Pitts, a slight but intensely engaging Amazon worker, walked up clad in an orange vest from which her Amazon ID dangled. When Pitts learned I was an outsider, she urged me to cast off the burdensome things that tied me to life in New York. "You need to just get in the RV and explore. You won't get rich doing it, but you get a lot of experiences and you meet the greatest people," Pitts said, gesturing to the surrounding RV park. "And you're happy because you're not in a bad mood."
Many workampers I met in Coffeyville were not just holding on but living with a very particular sort of alacrity, an almost aggressive good cheer that was frankly hard for me to reconcile with the apparent difficulty of their financial realities. A recent cover story in Harper's Magazine had dismissed workampers' cheery-eyed professions of happiness on the road as simple self-deception deployed to gloss over the strain of RV-borne migrant work. Yet a different and deeper force seemed present among the people I spoke with at Buckeye. If the workampers' relentless optimism is a collective lie, it is a sort of fiction that most everyone can relate to. It is a scaffold of meaning built to make sense of things, or, in the case of workampers, explain a lifestyle that so brilliantly conforms to the demands of America's new temp economy.
The harshest words for Amazon's labor practices in Coffeyville I heard came not from a workamper but from a local who told me that, on his first and only day of working at the warehouse, he was almost overcome by a seizure from Amazon's alien regime of computerized discipline. Perhaps Amazon spotted a certain cultural value in workampers back in 2008. In identifying this new labor force, Amazon has certainly achieved a feat of modern human resources: Workampers have formed a culture that, through exalting the American ideal of adventure on the open road, can embrace and elevate the often-frowned-upon temp jobs that have become so central to Amazon's business model.
Unfailingly, workampers refer to permanent homes as "stick-and-brick" houses. They say it almost as a slur. After a few days at Buckeye, I began to realize that this phrase refers not to the physical structures themselves, or even the stationary lifestyle, but to the entire orders of value that workampers have left behind. Nothing made me feel more like a stick-and-brick operative than asking the workampers where their extended journeys would end—when, if ever, they would settle back down for good.
Most workampers seem to be focused more on the near term. LaFata told me that she plans to work until she dies. After Amazon, she will head to a huge RV gathering in Quartzsite, Arizona, where she has already lined up a temporary job waiting tables at a comfort-food restaurant. She'll return to Amazon for next year's peak season. Beyond that, she is driven only by her van's primitive climate-control system, which forces her to chase not just income but fair weather as well.
"If it gets too hot, I'll go up north," LaFata told me with a clear note of pride. "If it gets too cold, I'll head down south."