Living in cars, working for Amazon: meet America’s new nomads

Millions of Americans are wrestling with the impossibility of a traditional middle-class existence. In homes across the country, kitchen tables are strewn with unpaid bills. Lights burn late into the night. The same calculations get performed again and again, through exhaustion and sometimes tears.

Wages minus grocery receipts. Minus medical bills. Minus credit card debt. Minus utility fees. Minus student loan and car payments. Minus the biggest expense of all: rent.

In the widening gap between credits and debits hangs a question: which bits of this life are you willing to give up, so you can keep on living?

During three years of research for my book, Nomadland: Surviving America in The Twenty-First Century, I spent time with hundreds of people who had arrived at the same answer. They gave up traditional housing and moved into “wheel estate”: RVs, travel trailers, vans, pickup campers, even a salvaged Prius and other sedans. For many, sacrificing some material comforts had allowed them to survive, while reclaiming a small measure of freedom and autonomy. But that didn’t mean life on the road was easy.

My first encounter with one group of the new nomads came in 2013, at the Desert Rose RV park in Fernley, Nevada. It was populated by members of the “precariat”: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs in exchange for low wages. Its citizens were full-time wanderers who dwelled in RVs and other vehicles, though at least one guy had only a tent to live in. Many were in their 60s and 70s, approaching or well into traditional retirement age. Most could not afford to stop working – or pay the rent.

Since 2009, the year after the housing crash, groups of such workers had migrated each fall to the mobile home parks surrounding Fernley. Most had traveled hundreds of miles – and undergone the routine indignities of criminal background checks and pee-in-a-cup drug tests – for the chance to earn $11.50 an hour plus overtime at temporary warehouse jobs. They planned to stay through early winter, despite the fact that most of their homes on wheels weren’t designed to support life in subzero temperatures.

Their employer was Amazon.

Amazon recruited these workers as part of a program it calls CamperForce: a labor unit made up of nomads who work as seasonal employees at several of its warehouses, which the company calls “fulfillment centers”.

Along with thousands of traditional temps, they’re hired to meet the heavy shipping demands of “peak season” – the consumer bonanza that spans the three to four months before Christmas.

While other employers also seek out this nomadic workforce – the available jobs range from campground maintenance to selling Christmas trees and running amusement park rides – Amazon has been the most aggressive recruiter. “Jeff Bezos has predicted that, by the year 2020, one out of every four work-campers – the RV- and vehicle-dwellers who travel the country for temporary work – in the United States will have worked for Amazon,” read one slide in a presentation for new hires.


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