Behind the piles of smiley-faced Amazon.com Inc. boxes arriving on doorsteps this holiday season are workers like Ray and Sarann Williams.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the retired couple are part of the swarm of seasonal employees taking up temporary residence in Fernley, Nev. —home to one of Amazon’s warehouses—to help the online-retail giant fulfill its influx of holiday orders.
The Williamses migrated from their home in Hurricane, Utah, to take the two-month warehouse gig. “The money always helps” and the physical labor “always makes me feel better,” Mr. Williams said as he walked his miniature schnauzer, Maya, around the Desert Rose RV park, where the couple is currently residing. The 75-year-old said this was his second stint as a seasonal Amazon worker, after spending last autumn at Amazon’s Campbellsville, Ky., location.
Amazon, the world’s biggest e-commerce purveyor, sees a sales spike every fourth quarter, when it makes nearly 40% of its more than $34 billion in annual revenue. To meet that surge, the Seattle-based company hires hundreds of temporary workers at each of its 34 U.S. warehouses.
A spokeswoman for Amazon, which has 51,000 staffers excluding seasonal workers world-wide, said it hires “thousands” of temporary workers for the holidays, but declined to disclose specific numbers. It said it quadrupled its staff at its warehouse in Phoenix to 1,200 to handle the end-of-year rush.
Many of these employees belong to the community of “workampers,” a sort of modern-day migrant worker. Many of them are retirees who spend all or part of the year living in RVs and taking odd seasonal jobs around the country. While some workers really need the money, others said they take the gigs to help fund their adventures or just for fun.
Many current and former seasonal workers said Amazon pays decent wages—about $12 an hour plus overtime in Fernley, which is about 50% better than minimum wage here. But that is in exchange for long hours and tedious labor.
“It’s like the best place to work and the worst place to work,” said Kelly Andrus, a 50-year-old Fernley resident who served as an Amazon holiday employee seven years ago. “It’s good pay, and they’re safety oriented,” but she said the managers were strict and the labor was physically demanding.
According to the Wall Street Journal, workers can be on their feet for hours fetching items from shelves, packing boxes and preparing incoming items for storage. Many said they lose five pounds or more in a few weeks. Earlier this year, Amazon was on the defensive after an Allentown, Pa., newspaper reported that more than a dozen workers collapsed inside the local warehouse there because of the summer heat. The company said employee safety was its top concern and that it had urgently installed air conditioning.
Holiday hiring surges are common in online retailing. At online electronics retailer Newegg Inc., a spokeswoman said the company boosts warehouse and customer-service headcount by about 130, or roughly 20%, during the holidays.
Amazon finds its workers via recruiting events, such as the one it held at an RV show in Quartzsite, Ariz., earlier this year. Many also come by word of mouth.
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In the search for paying jobs, more Americans are heading for the open road. An unconventional group of workers is always on the move, circling the country in RVs to follow seasonal employment.
They don’t like being called migrants, but for these self-styled “workampers,” their RV isn’t just their only home — it’s some 400 square feet of mobile opportunity.
Jobs typically last between three and five months in sites ranging from state parks to Florida’s Walt Disney World. Today, a good number of those available jobs are in Campbellsville, Ky., where a large processing plant for Amazon.com is still hiring workers for the busy holiday season.
More than 500 families have settled in a campground set up by Amazon, taking jobs in the company’s plant for nearly $15 an hour. All told, Amazon has hired 15,000 temporary workers at similar processing plants nationwide.
“There are jobs everywhere for people that live in RVs and are willing to move around,” said Shelia Sowder, a retiree who’s taken a job at Amazon’s Kentucky plant.
Sowder and her husband Jimmy, a former truck driver, are from Indianapolis, but they’ve been traveling the country for three years. While they’re parked in Kentucky, Amazon pays their rent and all utilities.
“It’s a fantastic deal,” Jimmy Sowder said.
Websites Link Mobile Workers with Employers
Websites help link employers with RV owners looking for jobs. At Workamper.com, paid subscribers have access to a database of job listings. According to the editor of the site, Steve Anderson, the community of “workampers” in the United States numbers around half a million people.
Often, these workers are retirees looking to earn money as they crisscross the United States, but some down-on-their-luck families have also turned to the highway for a leg up.
Heather Wickline and her family are from Tampa, where her husband lost his job in December. The couple are now on the road with their school-age children, and today, he’s at work. The kids are happy, and there’s a job waiting when the Amazon work ends.
“We just got a job offer from Louisville, but we’re hoping to go someplace south, like Texas or Florida,” Wickline said.