Campers help Amazon keep up with holiday rush

CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. — Twinkling lights, ornament-strewn trees and bustling campgrounds. Those are signs of the Christmas season in this Kentucky town, where the Amazon.com distribution center recruits an armada of RV owners as seasonal workers to help fill holiday orders.

They’re dubbed the “CamperForce” by the world’s largest online retailer. Hundreds of campers are assigned packing, sorting and collection duties at Amazon warehouses in Kentucky, Kansas and Nevada — roles meant to keep orders flowing during the yuletide rush.

Swarms of workers take up temporary residence in campgrounds. For many, it’s another short-term stint on a nonstop journey. It’s a lifestyle and mindset for retirees, empty nesters and younger parents who shuck traditions of home and work to roam from campsite to campsite, job to job.

“It’s a job, it’s not a career, so you don’t have to take it so seriously,” said Ron Dale, a college graduate with a business degree. “Go and have a good time. … You don’t have the stress of thinking, `I’ve got to perform at an unbelievable level. I’ve got to work extra hours so the boss knows I’m dedicated.”’

It gives him more time to spend with his wife, 7-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter, he said.

Since 2010, Amazon has recruited campers for its distribution centers in Campbellsville, Ky., Coffeyville, Kan., and Fernley, Nevada — places with modest populations where the company has to cast a wider net to bring in enough temporary workers to fill its needs.

The stints last about three months, and the hours on the job tend to grow longer as Christmas nears.

Dale, who just logged a 60-hour work week, said: “I’m the guy who grabs the presents and sends them to the kids for Christmas.”

Some jobs include plenty of lifting and bending over, as well as walking up to five to 10 miles a day.

Seasonal workers, including campers, play “an important role” in filling customer orders during the holiday season, said company spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman. On its peak day in 2012 — Nov. 26 — Amazon customers ordered more than 26.5 million items worldwide, or 306 items per second.

Amazon has said it expects an even busier holiday season this year.

Overall, the Seattle-based company said it was hiring 70,000 full-time seasonal workers around the country during this holiday season. Seasonal workers at its order fulfillment centers are eligible for health care benefits and, on average, earn 94 percent of the wages of regular employees.

Dale, 58, and his 31-year-old wife, Kristin, embraced the roving lifestyle this past fall. They loaded their kids, the family dog and some belongings into their 24-foot-long camper that’s now home, pulling up stakes in western Kentucky for the migratory life.

The Dales’ camping site the past few weeks gives them a sweeping view of scenic Green River Lake in south-central Kentucky.

“It’s like those people that spend millions of dollars to pay for a view like that,” Ron Dale said. “It’s like we’re on a vacation, permanently.”

For the Dales, there’s no turning back anytime soon. They’re leaning toward spending the winter along the Mississippi coast but hadn’t lined up jobs yet. They expect to be in Wisconsin next summer, working at a campground, followed by a stay in North Dakota for the sugar beet harvest.

The Dales plan to take turns working full time, while the other stays with the children and home schools their 7-year-old son.

The unconventional lifestyle has appealed to retirees and empty nesters eager to downsize and sightsee while picking up odd jobs along the way. Younger couples and families with children are joining the ranks of those willing to shuck the status quo for the lure of the road.

Some still have homes in towns they left, connecting them to their old lives. Others packed up from rentals they’ll likely never call home again.

“You have to not be attached to a lot of stuff,” said Trampas Jones, 34, who is embracing the lifestyle with his 41-year-old wife, Heather. “You really have to learn to pare down.”

They’re hoping to land winter jobs as gate guards at a Texas oilfield while living in their motorhome.

Many transient workers land temporary jobs at resorts, campgrounds, theme parks and state and national parks. The workers and employers looking to hire them can go online to match up. For some workers, the wages pay for their fun. Others rely on the salaries to cover necessities.

For all, though, it satisfies a yearning for wanderlust and adventure.

“There’s so much out there to see,” said Gayle Kerch, who travels the country with her husband, Jim, and their two dogs in their RV. “It’s just so vast. I can’t imagine staying in one spot and not going and seeing the country.”

The influx of work campers is felt across the communities, with more people eating in local restaurants and buying groceries and fuel. Entertainment venues can also benefit; the Dales, for example, have a bowling night each week.

“It does bring a boost to the local economy,” said Sandy Jenner, executive director of the Fernley Chamber of Commerce in Nevada.

As an incentive, Amazon pays camping fees for the seasonal workers who start arriving in early fall.

The migration has provided a windfall for campgrounds near Campbellsville.

Amazon seasonal workers were occupying all 82 campsites at Green River Stables, an RV campground and horse camp.

Without the temporary workers, the campground would likely be empty this time of year, said its owner, Darrell Wise.

“It’s all about Santa Claus,” he said.

Wise has invested his Amazon-related income to expand his operation, which started with 16 campsites in 2002.

“They’ve been a godsend to us,” he said. “Every campsite I’ve built, Amazon has filled it.”

At Green River Lake State Park, 48 campsites were filled due to demand from Amazon workers, said park manager Sharion L. Abney. Until they started showing up, the campground closed after November for winter. Now, it stays open through December.

Amazon-related business hasn’t been as lucrative for Big Chief RV Park in Kansas, which hosts campers working for Amazon at Coffeyville. The fee paid by Amazon doesn’t cover all the utility bills, and the RV park ends up absorbing some of those costs, said park manager Debra Harris.

“It hasn’t been real great,” she said. “We’re trying to accommodate. We’ve been on the road for many years, too, and we know what it was like to RV.”

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