Business

Amazon needs workers, so nomads find a place to land

After their shift at Amazon, workers walked back to the Campbellsville RV park where they live.
After their shift at Amazon, workers walked back to the Campbellsville RV park where they live.

CAMPBELLSVILLE — Former truck driver Jimmy Sowder and his wife, Sheila, worked in New Mexico last summer — he at a hardware store, she in the office and consignment shop of the RV park where they were staying.

Now they're working at an Amazon.com distribution center in Campbellsville, plucking everything from books to tools and toys off the shelves to fill Christmas orders.

After some time off, they'll look for jobs somewhere for February through April before heading to Maine to work at a campground from May to October.

That's the life of "workampers," people who live on the road most or all of the year, seeing the country as they work temporary jobs to help finance their footloose lifestyles.

"That's the way I think everyone should be able to live," said Jimmy Sowder, 53. "It's the freedom of the road. We're doing what most people wanted to do when they were 20."

Campers have come to Taylor County from around the country to help Internet retail giant Amazon.com handle increased shipping demand at its Campbellsville center during the Christmas rush.

Some came as early as August, though most arrived in October and November. Many will work through Christmas Eve.

There are 500 to 600 campers staying in five parks while working at the distribution center, local officials said.

About 1,200 people work at the 780,000-square-foot facility year-round, but the company needs up to 2,000 additional workers during the three-month Christmas season, said Ron McMahan, executive director of the Campbellsville-Taylor County Economic Development Authority.

Still looking for workers

Amazon.com hasn't been able to get all the seasonal workers it needs locally. There are still hundreds of jobs available at the Campbellsville facility, said Michele Glisson, an Amazon.com spokeswoman.

The company has about 50 such "fulfillment centers" worldwide, including one in Lexington. Many are in much larger labor markets, McMahan said.

Amazon.com started the center in Campbellsville in 1999, moving into a building where Fruit of the Loom had employed 2,500 people before closing.

Unemployment topped 25 percent in the late 1990s in Taylor County after the loss of Fruit of the Loom, Batesville Casket and other manufacturers, so it was welcome news when Amazon.com came to town.

The state approved the Seattle-based company for possible tax incentives of more than $27 million for facilities in Campbellsville and Lexington.

Amazon.com has bused in workers from elsewhere, including out of state, to work in Campbellsville, but stepped up efforts to recruit campers this year.

The company, local and state officials, and businesspeople worked to expand the number of sites available for RVs and travel trailers.

At Green River Lake State Park, for instance, the state installed frost-free water taps and wireless Internet service to accommodate campers.

That cost is being offset by the extra revenue the park gets from renting sites.

The park normally would close at the end of October but is staying open through the end of December for campers working at Amazon.com, manager Sharon Abney said.

Two separate businesses, Green River Resort and Heartland RV Park, built a total of about 150 campsites with water, sewer, electricity and wireless Internet service, investing more than $500,000, owners said.

"We just saw an opportunity to make some money that wasn't there" before Amazon started recruiting campers, said Marie Taylor, a partner in Green River Resort.

The business, which also operates Green River Marina, built 68 RV sites and added a laundry and showers to the camp store.

"We're hoping that this will be big," Tucker said.

Amazon.com said if the program goes well this year, it could bring in 1,200 to 1,600 campers in 2011, McMahan said.

Campers working at Amazon said the company pays the rent on their campsites.

They make $9.90 or $10.50 an hour on top of that, with the higher salary for the overnight shift. Many work four 10-hour days, but overtime is mandatory for some.

Most of the jobs are in receiving, which involves moving items from a conveyor onto carts; stowing the goods in the 2 million-plus bins in the center; and picking, which means retrieving the items from the bins to fill orders.

Getting lots of exercise

Several campers said the company has been good to work for, though the jobs are more physical than some imagined.

Sowder said a pedometer he wears showed he walked 18 miles inside the center one day while picking items from bins to ship out.

"You're just constantly moving," he said.

There are people who live in campgrounds while looking for work out of necessity, because they've lost jobs or homes during the steep recession.

But many of the people working at Amazon.com are retired and have income from savings, pensions and Social Security.

Taking temporary jobs supplements their income and pays travel costs, several said.

"It's a way of not dipping into the retirement fund," said Jimmy Sowder.

Some of the campers probably would need part-time jobs even if they hadn't chosen to get them on the road, said Sheila Sowder, who retired from an advertising job.

Steve Anderson, who runs a magazine called Workamper News and the related Workamper.com, which advertise jobs for RVers, said most of his subscribers are retirees.

The number of people living the "RV lifestyle" has grown during his 22 years in business as more baby boomers retire, Anderson said.

Several campers said they chose to live on the road because they love to travel. They speak passionately about shedding their stuff and seeing the country.

"We're very nomadic," Darren Koepp, who left a high-paying job as an automation engineer to go on the road full-time with his wife and two small children. "When we bought our RV, it was kind of like a lifeboat."

Bob Reed, 68, and his wife Josie, 62, a florist, who are working at Amazon.com, said they kept a storage unit for some of their belongings after selling their home in Arizona, but now they're looking to get rid of it.

"You can learn to live with less," said Bob Reed, who retired after a career in computer sales and management and real-estate sales.

Roy Carter, who had a trucking business, said he and his wife, Marilyn, a retired speech pathologist, had lived in northern Michigan for 20 years before deciding to get involved in work camping.

Seeing the same scenery every day, "I just thought, 'Is this it? Is this all my life is going to be?' " said Carter, who is working at Amazon.com.

The recession also was a factor. Carter had lost customers, which pushed him and his wife to do what they wanted to do anyway — sell their house, boat and business, and go on the road full-time in their 24-foot travel trailer.

"It fits the lifestyle perfectly," Carter said of temporary jobs. "You don't have to explain why you have to leave in a month, two months."

People who take temporary jobs around the country keep up with family and friends through phone and e-mail, and get their mail through forwarding services.

They find out about jobs through friends, trade shows and job-listing services such as Workamper.com.

Life on the road

It is possible to string together jobs nearly year-round, campers said.

There are temporary jobs at amusement parks, campgrounds, state and national parks, race tracks, fireworks stands, Christmas-tree lots, tax-preparation services and many other places.

"When you get to one place, you kind of start looking for the next place," said Joe Petrovich, 55, who is working at Amazon with his wife, Denise, 46.

They had lived in Florida and delivered motor homes for a living before hitting the road full-time.

Several campers said they represent a good deal for Amazon.com because after a lifetime on the job, they have a good work ethic

"One thing about us, we're darn dependable," said Hank Zoda, 71, a former insurance adjuster in Florida.

The program has been good all around, local officials said.

Amazon.com gets workers it needs, the RVers make money to underwrite their travel, and they spend some of it locally and on day trips around the region.

It's like having a nine-week convention in town, McMahan said. "These folks are spending money at Kroger, Wal-Mart, local restaurants," he said.

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