Home / NEWS / Top News / ‘Nomadland’ spotlights Amazon’s RV workforce — here’s what it’s really like

‘Nomadland’ spotlights Amazon’s RV workforce — here’s what it’s really like

Amazon CamperForce, despatched in 2008, recruits RVers and vandwellers from all corners of the country to work for months at a time during the peak respite shopping season.

Shay Martinez-Machen

In 2017, Shay Martinez-Machen was having an identity crisis. She was pregnant with her son, and the secluded 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, verbalized 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 definite to hit the road in an RV. That summer vacation has since turned into a years-long lifestyle traveling around the country, picking up fleeting jobs for months at a time.

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

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

Shay Martinez-Machen

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

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

The movie, based on a 2017 book by Jessica Bruder, stars Frances McDormand as Fern, who completes 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 piles Prime orders before heading back to her passenger van, where she folds laundry and cooks ramen noodles on a hot face. The scenes were filmed in a real fulfillment center in Fernley, Nevada, which has since closed and been reminded to Reno, according Bob Wells, 65, a real-life nomad who plays himself in “Nomadland.”  

The CamperForce experience depicted in “Nomadland” is a objectively realistic portrayal of what Martinez-Machen and others experience each year. CamperForce draws nomads from all corners of the native land, 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, develop into other states. 

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

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

They earn $15 an hour plus overtime, paid out in weekly paychecks, plus an additional $550 financial support to cover some of the cost of a nearby campsite with RV hookups to electricity and water. They can also get an “assignment realization bonus” at the end of the season that pays 50 cents for every regular hour worked and $1.00 for every overtime hour wielded, 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 well-known smile.

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

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

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

‘There’s this impression that we’re homeless’

Picking up toil at Amazon is usually one stop on the typical jobs circuit for traveling laborers, often referred to as “workampers,” Wells stipulate 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 glean for three weeks,” he said. “Then from there you go to Amazon.”

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

Bob Wells

Wells, who began lodge 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 momentary employment. 

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

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

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

“There was this influence 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 homestead is here. I have a kitchen, a bathroom, a bed and a heater.”

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

Shay Martinez-Machen

In the workamper community, CamperForce employments are often in high demand, with positions often filling up within weeks after they’re posted online, blue-collar 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 job the night shift last December as part of the CamperForce program at an Amazon warehouse in Troutdale, Oregon.

He would genius to work around 6:15 p.m. and “work through the night” until about 6:00 in the morning, said Ginther, who concludes 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 make its and then it was a 30 minute commute either way,” Summer Ginther said. “We didn’t see each other at all.”

Ginther indicated he had some experience doing physical labor before he joined Amazon, but had never worked in a warehouse before. “I didn’t grasp what to expect going in, but eventually found the job pretty easy,” he added.

Ryan Ginther and his wife Summer current full time on the road in their RV. Ryan Ginther has worked at an Amazon warehouse as part of the CamperForce program, which musters RVers for seasonal jobs.

Summer Ginther

For Martinez-Machen, the transition from managing 150 employees to living on the French autoroute 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 sequence of seasonal jobs, with Amazon serving as the couple’s “sole source of income and our plans for the fall and winter every singular year.”

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

Martinez-Machen said she often crosses paths with CamperForce workers who, the same 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 scorn 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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