Kris Osborne in front of her RV. Osborne is one of many senior workers who will be temping for Amazon this holiday season.
Those holiday gifts you’re expecting this year will come from Santa’s workshop, if you still believe in that kind of thing. More than likely, though, you realize they’re shipping out from Amazon.
But what you may not know is there’s a dead ringer for Mrs. Claus packing the boxes.
Amazon, which recently fell behind Alibaba to become the world’s second-largest e-commerce company, is in the throes of its annual temporary seasonal worker program that includes a few thousand graying retirees in its giant warehouse facilities around the U.S.
The employees live full-time in recreational vehicles, following mostly low-paying, strenuous jobs around the country instead of enjoying those golden years on the golf course.
Various media has labeled the phenomenon “the senior gypsy economy,” and has dubbed the geriatric migrant workers, “Bedouins” or “Okies of the Great Recession,” because many lost their homes, jobs and investments in the financial crash of the late 2000s.
Amazon calls them CamperForce and spends significant amounts of time and energy recruiting them at RV shows and through online advertising that sells the work as, “your next adventure,” that will bring together “a community of enthusiastic RV’ers who help make the holidays bright” for online shoppers. The company-branded program even has its own logo.
Amazon reported earlier this fall that it planned to hire 80,000 temp workers for its fulfillment centers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas, up from 70,000 last season. The older employees make up a fraction of the total, though Amazon won’t confirm the exact numbers.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between the often just-scraping-by retirees and companies like Amazon that employ them, said Jessica Bruder, who’s writing a book on the subject based on her well-readHarper’s magazine story from this summer.
“This is plug-and-play labor. They show up, they’re self-contained, and then they leave. It’s frictionless,” Bruder said. “And this is the Greatest Generation. They have an amazing work ethic, they’re willing to grit their teeth and bear it, and they’re reliable.”
Despite not having done physical labor in their professional lives before, they don’t complain about the abundance of lifting, bending, squatting and walking on concrete slab floors for 10- to 12-hour shifts at Amazon’s warehouses.
They’re too busy being grateful for the work, Bruder said.
“Who else wants to hire people in their 50s and older who’ve been pushed out of the workforce?” she said. “That demo has a lot of challenges, and Amazon isn’t generous, but it’s better than the bottom of the barrel.”
Amazon, which recently posted its biggest quarterly net loss in more than a decade and saw its stock price battered, pays its seasonal workers between $10 and $12.25 an hour, with overtime and bonuses. Amazon covers the campsite fees.
Bill and Kris Osborne, retirees from Virginia, reported on their SeeingTheUSA blog that they grossed a combined $7,634 for 647 hours of work, with 56 days of paid campsite fees, during last year’s holiday rush.
“We are glad to know that we had the stamina to do it,” Bill wrote at the end of the season, along with noting frequently in posts during their employment time that, “We’re tired at the end of the day.”
They’re working at Amazon’s Coffeyville, Kansas, fulfillment center this year.
Some workers have been much less diplomatic than the Osbornes on blogs like Gawker, which is running a series of stories about harsh working conditions and the “soul-crushing experience” at Amazon’s warehouses. A few have likened the company-sponsored RV camps to the Great Depression’s Hoovervilles.
And a class-action lawsuit accusing Amazon of wage theft at the Nevada facility is now before the Supreme Court. Justices recently heard arguments over whether those workers must be paid for time spent going through security screenings that can take as long as 25 minutes at the end of their shifts. (Temp workers have emphasized on numerous blogs that theft prevention is a major priority for Amazon).
Criticism of the seasonal work can be expected when many of the employees live a hand-to-mouth existence doing rote assembly line-style jobs. Even Amazon calls its training, “work hardening,” which Bruder thinks is “a bizarrely blunt way to describe what’s happening.”
Temp employees have said the company is generous with free Advil, for all the aches and pains, and sometimes doles out swag and gratis meals.
Unless and until these jobs are automated, Bruder expects Amazon to continue hiring seasonal temps, many in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 12% of those 70-plus continue working today versus 6.7% in 1985, and the Center for Retirement Research found that 49% of those 50-59 years old aren’t covered by a pension.
Fifty-three percent of households are at risk of not being able to maintain their living standards in retirement, the center found, and the risk is greater when health care costs are factored in.
Older Americans expect less financial security than their parents had, according to the AARP, and 80% of Baby Boomers expect to work in retirement, citing “need the money” as their primary reason.
The market conditions created “a bit of a perfect storm,” said David Allen Larson, professor of labor and employment law at Minnesota’s Hamline University. “ Companies reduced costs during the recession, which meant getting rid of the higher salaried people, most of them older,” he said. “It’s statistically harder to get re-employed at that age.”
Older people who continue working list a number of hardships that landed them in their current situation, among them declining home values, exhausted savings and loss of health insurance, according to AARP research.
Not to say that there aren’t some comfortable retirees combining seasonal jobs with sightseeing, but many of the migrant elderly folks that Bruder encountered during her reporting “seemed one injury or broken axle away from true homelessness,” she wrote in Harper’s.
They have no union protection, and Larson likens them to immigrant workers who may be willing to put up with less-than-idea conditions, including injuries.
“They probably feel like they need to keep their mouths shut and take what they can get,” Larson said, “because if they leave they’ll be worse off.”
The elderly Amazon employees take real pride in their work, Bruder said, and feel like it imbues them with a sense of purpose. That’s why they’re annoyed when shoppers order cheap trinkets or goofy novelties for holiday gift giving.
“When they pack the kinds of goods that they can guess the end users will throw away within five months, it’s extra heartbreaking for them,” Bruder said. “They’ve told themselves that they’re making people’s holiday wishes come true. They express a real frustration in seeing a bunch of disposable stuff.”
And for crying out loud, don’t make Grandma ship your sex toys.
“They’re all really tired of packing those,” Bruder said. “Across the board.”
Tags: AMAZON, BUSINESS, HOLIDAY SEASON 2014, JOBS