Five nights a week from December through February, Shay Machen and America Martinez take off from their Mississippi campground for an overnight shift at Amazon, leaving their two kids and two dogs with Machen's parents.
This is Machen's fourth holiday season with Amazon, and Martinez's fifth. After losing their jobs at an ambulance company and then losing their home, the couple decided to live on the road full time in 2017.
"And we don't really see an end in that," Machen said. "Amazon was our first work-camping job, and Amazon showed us that we could live like this, that we could afford to live like this, and it has been our fallback every single winter."
Machen and Martinez are part of a niche program called Amazon CamperForce, which gained notoriety when it was featured in the film "Nomadland" as the character Fern's seasonal gig. Fern was played by Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance.
Amazon started hiring hundreds of CamperForce workers in 2008 at just one location, Coffeyville, Kansas. In 2020, it spanned 13 sites in eight states. This year, the program doubled for a total of 26 CamperForce sites across 14 states.
"Amazon is trying to address this general seasonal labor shortage any way they can," said Manuel Pastor, a labor professor who heads up the University of Southern California's Equity Research Institute. "There are so many folks who, during the pandemic, chose to retire early, that this is a way of supplementing their income and fitting in with their lifestyle."
Martinez said it's not all about money, or lack thereof.
"I don't want people to think that we do this because we can't afford something else," Martinez said. "We do this because we like to do it and our kids enjoy it. And if they ever say they don't want to do it, we would settle down for them."
The three-month assignments at Amazon fill the family's bank account, allowing Machen and Martinez to only work sporadically at minimum wage jobs the rest of the year while they travel the country in their RV.
Amazon says the average CamperForce starting salary is $18 per hour, with a sign-on bonus of up to $3,000. Machen and Martinez say they make a base salary of $15 per hour and were not offered a sign-on bonus. Amazon also says CamperForce workers are eligible for basic life and accidental death and dismemberment benefits after 30 days and medical and prescription benefits after 90 days. The longest assignments are just over that, ranging from six to 14 weeks.
Amazon also helps CamperForce workers with the cost of their campground for the duration of the assignment, although that benefit has changed significantly this year. Previously, Amazon paid campgrounds up to $550 per month for each site its workers occupied. This year, Amazon changed that to $480 per month per worker and turned it into taxable income, adding $120 to weekly paychecks.
"If you're a couple and you only have to pay for one campsite, it works out well," Martinez said. "But if you're a single, you're a little bit out of money."
Until this year, Amazon also lined up campgrounds near each warehouse, making payments to campgrounds directly. Now, campers are responsible for finding their own sites.
"There were a lot of people this year, I know, that dropped out of different facilities because they couldn't find a place," Machen said. "There's a lot of parks that are 55-plus in these areas that they're sending people to. There's a lot of parks that are maxed out, they don't have any space. There's a lot of parks that close down in the winter time."
Andre Woodson, an Amazon spokesperson, said the changes were made "to provide all CamperForce employees more flexibility in selecting campgrounds." He also said Amazon has a dedicated CamperForce support team, with leaders at each site who workers can call for urgent help with anything related to the program, including campsite issues.
Amazon says it starts the CamperForce hiring process in July of each year, recruiting from booths at popular RV shows like Quartzsite in Arizona and in online communities of work-campers. This year, Amazon offered part-time and grocery positions for the first time.
Candidates must be at least 18, have a high school diploma or equivalent, be able to stand or walk four to 10 hours a day, and lift up to 49 pounds. They must reside in an RV at a campground for the duration of the assignment and aren't allowed to park overnight on Amazon property.
Other retailers are following Amazon's lead. JCPenney launched a "Camp Crew Program" in 2019, hiring up to 100 employees each season at eight U.S. warehouses at an average starting salary of $18 per hour with an extra $100 weekly stipend toward RV site reservations. Electronic component distributor Digi-Key started a similar program this summer, hiring more than 250 campers to pick and pack at its warehouse in Minnesota for $18-$20 per hour. The program is still ongoing and includes a fully paid, prearranged RV site, as well as flexible timing for the thousands of work-campers who also are hired on for the seasonal sugar beet harvest.
Amazon will open the first CamperForce 2022 applications in January, giving previous employees like Machen and Martinez a head start on choosing their assignment location.
Watch the video to see a day in the life of Machen and Martinez, and the work they chose at a new Amazon returns center just over the Mississippi border from Memphis, Tennessee.