Technology

‘Nomadland' Spotlights Amazon's RV Workforce — Here's What It's Really Like

Summer Ginther
  • The Golden Globe-nomated film "Nomadland," starring Frances McDormand, has cast a spotlight on Amazon's CamperForce program, a seasonal workforce of RVers and vandwellers that hail from all parts of the U.S.
  • The program has been around since 2008, employing hundreds of workers each year.
  • CNBC spoke to CamperForce workers and members of the nomad community to learn more about what the program is like.
Amazon CamperForce, launched in 2008, recruits RVers and vandwellers from all corners of the country to work for months at a time during the peak holiday shopping season.
Shay Martinez-Machen
Amazon CamperForce, launched in 2008, recruits RVers and vandwellers from all corners of the country to work for months at a time during the peak holiday shopping season.

In 2017, Shay Martinez-Machen was having an identity crisis. She was pregnant with her son, and the private ambulance company she'd worked at for a decade went bankrupt, suddenly leaving her without a home or a job.

"I went from corporate America to a stay-at-home mom overnight," Martinez-Machen, 33, said in an interview. "I didn't know who I was."

Inspired by her parents, who had become "full-time nomads," Martinez-Machen, her wife America, and their two kids decided to hit the road in an RV. That summer vacation has since turned into a years-long lifestyle traveling around the country, picking up temporary jobs for months at a time.

But each year since 2017, they've spent a few months working for one of the largest employers in the United States: Amazon.

Shay Martinez-Machen and her wife America Martinez live in an RV with their two children.
Shay Martinez-Machen
Shay Martinez-Machen and her wife America Martinez live in an RV with their two children.

Martinez-Machen and her wife are among hundreds of Americans who work at Amazon three months out of the year as part of the company's CamperForce program. Launched in 2008, CamperForce recruits RVers and van-dwellers for temporary jobs to shore up its workforce during the busy holiday shopping period. 

While CamperForce has been around for more than a decade, the program has been cast into the spotlight after it was featured in the Golden Globe-nominated film "Nomadland."

The movie, based on a 2017 book by Jessica Bruder, stars Frances McDormand as Fern, who lives a transient life on the road in her van, traveling from one job to the next, including as an Amazon warehouse worker in Nevada. Fern picks and packs Prime orders before heading back to her passenger van, where she folds laundry and cooks ramen noodles on a hot plate. The scenes were filmed in a real fulfillment center in Fernley, Nevada, which has since closed and been moved to Reno, according Bob Wells, 65, a real-life nomad who plays himself in "Nomadland."  

The CamperForce experience depicted in "Nomadland" is a fairly realistic portrayal of what Martinez-Machen and others experience each year. CamperForce draws nomads from all corners of the country, many of them elderly, but increasingly younger and with families in tow, to a growing number of Amazon warehouses in Arizona, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, among other states. 

Only a handful of Amazon warehouses participated in the CamperForce program in its early days. This year, Amazon will offer CamperForce positions at 27 facilities.

Just like the rest of Amazon's hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers, CamperForce employees work 10- to 12-hour shifts inside sprawling fulfillment centers, packing, picking, stowing and receiving packages. 

They earn $15 an hour plus overtime, paid out in weekly paychecks, plus an additional $550 stipend to cover some of the cost of a nearby campsite with RV hookups to electricity and water. They can also get an "assignment completion bonus" at the end of the season that pays 50 cents for every regular hour worked and $1.00 for every overtime hour worked, according to a promotional video posted by Amazon. Many of them sport t-shirts, lanyards and other gear with the CamperForce logo — a roving RV with Amazon's famous smile.

Workers can also get access to medical and prescription benefits after 90 days, but depending on the length of their position, some workers may not be eligible

Amazon said it created the CamperForce program as a flexible work option for RVers during peak season. Many CamperForce employees "return year-after-year" to work at Amazon, Amazon spokesperson Andre Woodson told CNBC in a statement.

"We are proud of our innovative CamperForce program and the opportunities it offers for individuals to combine earning extra money during the holiday season with RV camping," Woodson said.

'There's this impression that we're homeless'

Picking up work at Amazon is usually one stop on the typical jobs circuit for traveling laborers, often referred to as "workampers," Wells said in an interview.

"You can be a campground host in the summer. When that's over, you leave almost immediately and you go and work the beet harvest for three weeks," he said. "Then from there you go to Amazon."

Bob Wells, 65, plays himself in Nomadland, which stars Frances McDormand and depicts her as a van-dweller working various jobs on the road, including at an Amazon warehouse.
Bob Wells
Bob Wells, 65, plays himself in Nomadland, which stars Frances McDormand and depicts her as a van-dweller working various jobs on the road, including at an Amazon warehouse.

Wells, who began living in a van in 1995, has never worked at Amazon despite all of his years on the road. But he has met many nomads, often elderly, who have relied on CamperForce for temporary employment. 

"It's hard work. No one would question that," Wells said. "You're on your feet 10 hours a day and then with mandatory overtime it's 12 hours a day. For old hips, knees and elbows, that's hard."

Wells moved into a box van with very little money after going through a divorce. Although it was a traumatic transition, he disagrees with the idea that financial need is the main reason nomads take to a life on the road. Once many nomads finish the six-month job circuit, they spend time traveling. "You've got the rest of the year that's yours," he said.

Martinez-Machen said she often felt like full-time Amazon warehouse workers didn't understand what the CamperForce program was about. Some of her coworkers thought that CamperForce employees are "all sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya," Martinez-Machen said.

"There was this impression that we're homeless and we're transients and we don't have a safe place to go home to," Martinez-Machen said. "But my kids are here with me. My house is here. I have a kitchen, a bathroom, a bed and a heater."

Shay Martinez-Machen and her wife have worked several seasons as part of Amazon's CamperForce program, which operates out of several warehouses across the U.S.
Shay Martinez-Machen
Shay Martinez-Machen and her wife have worked several seasons as part of Amazon's CamperForce program, which operates out of several warehouses across the U.S.

In the workamper community, CamperForce jobs are often in high demand, with positions often filling up within weeks after they're posted online, workers told CNBC. But it's definitely tough work.

Ryan Ginther said he's unsure if he'd pick up seasonal work at Amazon again. Ginther worked the night shift last December as part of the CamperForce program at an Amazon warehouse in Troutdale, Oregon.

He would head to work around 6:15 p.m. and "work through the night" until about 6:00 in the morning, said Ginther, who lives in an RV with his wife, Summer, and their pet pug. "That was something I don't really want to do again," he said.

"It was such long shifts and then it was a 30 minute commute either way," Summer Ginther said. "We didn't see each other at all."

Ginther said he had some experience doing physical labor before he joined Amazon, but had never worked in a warehouse before. "I didn't know what to expect going in, but eventually found the job pretty easy," he added.

For Martinez-Machen, the transition from managing 150 employees to living on the road and working in a warehouse was much more dramatic. But five years on, Martinez-Machen said she and her wife have adapted to the workamper cycle of seasonal jobs, with Amazon serving as the couple's "sole source of income and our plans for the fall and winter every single year."

"We've gone back, regardless of the complaints and the sore feet and everything else that comes along with it," Martinez-Machen said. "I think that's a common experience."

Martinez-Machen said she often crosses paths with CamperForce workers who, even though they had a rough time at Amazon, will still return the following season at a site in another state.

"There are people who say, 'I hate this place, I don't want to come back,'" she said. "And then at the end of it, they'll say, 'Well, where are you going next year? I'll see you there.'"

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