Amazon's Elves: Itinerant 'Workampers' Staff Distribution Centers

Grapes of Wrath 2.0: Modern Oakies sorting merchandise, shipping gifts.

ByABC News
October 26, 2011, 4:16 PM

Oct. 31, 2011 -- That fruitcake sent you by Aunt Sue—the one she bought on—may have been picked and packed and shipped by a migrant laborer—some guy living in his RV, outdoors, in an Amazon-subsidized trailer camp located near one of the company's giant distribution centers in Fernley, Nevada; Campbellsville, Kentucky; or Coffeyville, Kansas.

You might suppose such workers would be a pretty grim bunch--desperate, rootless Grapes-of-Wrath-types forced by economic hardship to pick and sort Amazon merchandise the same way Tom Joad once picked fruit. But you'd be wrong.

These modern migrants run the gamut. Some, true, are down and out and desperate, traveling thousands of miles to get a few months' work, living in broken-down campers. Others, though, are well off—retirees with conventional brick-and-mortar residences back home, who think of themselves as being on a kind of permanent vacation. For a variety of reasons, they like camping-out and working temporary jobs at Amazon.

Nor is Amazon the only game in town for "workampers" (as these traveling laborers are called). Big employers of workampers include Yellowstone National Park and other national parks, amusement parks like Adventure Land, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which uses workampers to supervise the gates at government campgrounds. An outfit in California uses workampers to look after lighthouses. And in Florida, the department of wildlife uses them to help with the annual alligator count.

So significant has the workamping phenomenon become that it even has its own magazine, Workamper News, full of ads by employers looking to recruit this new breed of migrant worker. Disney, parent company of ABC News, until lately was its biggest advertiser, since Disney has made use of workampers at its parks.

The magazine's editor and publisher, Steve Anderson, admits workamping isn't for everyone, but says it represents a "tremendous opportunity" for the right kind of person—somebody, say, who wants to see the country and to be able to spend months, rather than days, in a location. "If you go to Yellowstone for three or four days, you're seeing it," says Anderson. "But if you're living there for three or four months, you're really experiencing it."

Typically, the park service gives an RV owner a free camping space and utility hookups, plus a salary. Most people, Anderson says, don't take workamping jobs for the money, since most pay under $10 an hour. "What they want is the experience of living in different parts of the country and doing different things." The demographic of these workers is changing, as more Baby Boomers either choose the migratory lifestyle or are forced into it by financial setbacks. "The average age was 62," says Anderson. "Now it's 58. Some are people who never finished school, but we've also got doctors and lawyers and factory workers."

He says Amazon is by far the biggest workamper employer—a fact the company will not confirm. All it would say, in a written statement to ABC News, was: "Amazon hires temporary employees, including workampers, in our fulfillment centers to manage a variation in customer demand throughout the year."