'Workampers': What It's Like to Wander Around the Country in an RV Desperately Looking for Work
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Where are the jobs? That question is on the minds of millions of Americans who have lost jobs during the Great Recession. During this historically lean jobs creation period, finding a new job often requires thinking outside the box. And you can’t think much further outside the job search box than "workamping" -- also known as work-camping.
“The RV's kitchen slide broke in Eutaw, Alabama, which is in the middle of the middle of nowhere. We managed. We were stuck in the mud in Clarksdale, Mississipi during a launch party for the anthology, Delta Blues. The tow truck driver who pulled our rig out of the mud jackknifed it and broke out the pickup's rear window. Guess I can add my broken wrist to the list of oopsies.”
That’s how Suzann Ellingsworth described a couple of days in the workamping life she shares with her husband, Dave, as they drive their RV through the southern and plains states looking for work.
According to Workamper.com, a workamper is “an adventurous individual who has chosen a wonderful lifestyle that combines ANY kind of part-time or full-time work with RV camping. If you work as an employee, operate a business, or donate your time as a volunteer, AND you sleep in an RV (or on-site housing), you are a Workamper. Workampers generally receive compensation in the form of a free campsite, usually with free utilities (electricity, water, and sewer hookups) and additional wages.”
Calling it a “wonderful lifestyle” seems a bit over the top for some workampers. After communicating with Suzann for more than six months and observing the Ellingsworth’s ups and frequent downs, it’s obvious that workamping is not all fun and games, at least for those who hit the road in need of a job to survive.
Most workamper jobs are of the minimum-wage variety. Workampers generally don’t receive unemployment insurance benefits, severance pay or any warning that a job is about to end. Workampers face many of the same job insecurity issues as the millions of Americans who have been downsized due to job outsourcing, financial mismanagement and slow consumer demand for products and services, except workampers are purposely more nimble and have been conditioned to pack up and move to where the jobs are. “We have to be mobile to land a job,” said Suzann. Those who become jobless and live in traditional stationary homes aren’t usually able to move to another city on a moment’s notice.
Since workamping is a nomadic lifestyle, it’s difficult to collect a headcount. Steve Anderson, president of Workamper.com, said the most recent workamper survey is from KOA, but it is dated: “Nearly 10 years ago the KOA Corporation gave an estimate that 750,000 were living the workamping lifestyle. Their data was questioned then and at best was an estimated guess. Over the years we have seen our membership remain in the 14,000 range with thousands of others in the dreaming stages of workamping. It is very transitional lifestyle, meaning folks begin and end the lifestyle every day.”
“More people are turning to workamping as a way to earn money,” said Jaimie Hall Bruzenak, RVlifestyleexperts.com founder and author of Support Your RV Lifestyle! An Insider's Guide to Working on the Road. “I would say it is mixed, though. Some are the traditional retired couples who want to either earn a little money or get a free site while having the chance to travel and stay in beautiful places. There are also those who have been hit with the downturn -- either they don't have enough retirement income to live on or perhaps lost their jobs and look to workamping as an alternative way to make a living. There are people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who choose this lifestyle. My late husband and I were 47 when we started.”
For an increasing number of older workers, workamping may offer an opportunity to supplement retirement incomes. According to a 2011 study from the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, “More than three in five U.S. workers in their 50s and 60s plan on working past 65 — and 47% of that group say they'll do so because they'll need the money or health benefits.”
The Great Recession has cost millions of Americans their livelihoods as it did the Ellingsworths. Dave, according to Suzann, “was a marketing/advertising/IT professional--the first corporate division to fall in any economic downturn, counterproductive as that is.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported for August that 6.2 million workers have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. Over two million workers have been unemployed for 99 weeks or more – near record levels.
Suzann is uncomfortably familiar with her husband’s job search struggle. “Over the UI period, he sent hundreds of resumes. It netted three in-person interviews, no offers. Words can't describe what it does to a man to be unable to find work--the grind-down process. Constantly ginning hope that 'this will be the day' meets no dice at mid-afternoon. Friends and family members eventually believe you aren't trying hard enough, you're too picky, you're enjoying an extended, paid vacation of sorts.”
It’s certainly not a paid vacation for millions of job seekers. The BLS reported that there were 3.1 million job openings in the US, “well below the 4.4 million openings when the recession began in December 2007.” When the unemployed, discouraged workers, and underemployed (those seeking full-time work, but currently working only part-time), are added together, there are roughly eight people available for each full-time job opening.
Both natives of Missouri, Suzann, 58, and Dave, 56, are the parents of three grown children and grandparents of three. A freelance writer, Suzann was apprehensive about the dramatic change in lifestyle once she and her husband decided to take on the workamper lifestyle, “I'll admit a serious case of intimidation at the prospect of a so-called real job, having womanned a keyboard in a home office for a couple of decades. Small businesses don't come any smaller than a self-employed writer.”
The Ellingsworths were forced to sell their home in the fall of 2009. After thoroughly researching what they would need to become workamper road warriors, they purchased a 2002 pickup and a 34-foot-long, six-year-old RV, or as it was dubbed “a Pringles can with tires.”
On January 21, 2010, they packed their remaining possessions and their two rescued greyhounds into the pickup and RV. They had hoped to gradually learn the ropes of operating the large rig, but unseasonable weather, “kiboshed all plans to practice hitching the RV to the pickup, practice driving them on empty parking lots. The first time Dave hitched the two was the day we left. The first time he drove the two hitched was when we pulled out. Even we can't believe we did that, let alone made it through Memphis early afternoon traffic alive.”
When asked what they miss most about the non-RV life, Suzann replied, “Of course, family and friends the most. The sense we're abdicating our responsibilities to Dave's elderly parents, our three grown children, and three grandchildren gets to us. Life does go on--ours now separate from those we love most."
The jobs available for workampers are generally lower paying and without benefits – often minimum wage, or less if you are supplied with a dedicated campsite, which can include electricity and water. If you pay for a campsite, it can cost anywhere from $350 to $500 a month. Workampers who have a secondary form of income can obtain a free campsite at a national, state, or private RV park by “volunteering” 20-30 hours of work.
William Smith of Happyvagabonds.com, an RV camping and jobs search site, said, “The people who most successful at workamping will generally not rely on workamping as a sole source of income. Compensation is typically on the low end of the scale for workampers. It is not unusual to see campgrounds offer arrangements where the workamper will actually earn less than minimum wage in exchange for their campsite.”
Work-camping.com notes “Many work-camping jobs are seasonal, running from about May to October, though some positions in warm-weather states like Florida or Arizona may be yearround.”
While most jobs are of the minimum-wage variety, Jaimie Hall Bruzenak added, “There are many other opportunities, some of which do pay more. There are sales jobs such as working for Air Photo, where workampers I've interviewed say they make $40,000 a year or more. My late husband and I worked as seasonal workers for the National Park Service and made $12-$18 an hour. In a six-month season, we could live on one paycheck and then bank the other.”
During the 2010 winter holiday season, Dave was fortunate to secure 40-hour-a-week employment at an Amazon distribution center -- a workamper’s dream job. Amazon is a company that caters to the workamper, according to Jaimie Hall Bruzenak: “Amazon hires as many workampers as they can for work in their warehouses and pay very well for seasonal work, as well as provide an RV site. They have found the more mature workers to be more productive than the younger ones, in spite of the fact that they aren't as physically able as the young ones.”
Living the workamper life can be expensive. There’s the matter of food (growing food in Styrofoam ice chests offers fresh vegetables), fuel (gas, diesel and propane), vehicle insurance and repairs, communications, campsite fees, and satellite TV. Why satellite TV? “It’s all but mandatory, as [broadcast television] is not available in myriad areas surprisingly not far beyond municipal limits.” Beyond the standard TV fare, “The Weather Channel is the most important channel because we need to keep track of tornados and flash floods.”
Besides the weather, another enemy of the workamper is weight, since each pound of cargo increases the cost of fuel to travel. “We continually jettison items we thought we needed and learned we didn't, including the sofa-bed that came with the RV. Before anything is purchased, thought must be given to whether it's truly needed and how much it weighs -- weight being a concept unconsidered in a sticks-and-bricks house, but critical to a house that must be towed everywhere.”
The Ellingsworths have met scores of full-time workampers, “Including families with children either home-schooled or enrolled in a respective school system for the duration of the temp job, then moving on to the next. The average age of full-timers is 45-54, which counters the mental image of doddering senior citizens on wheels.”
Prior to Dave’s job at Amazon, the Ellingsworths worked at a seasonal amusement park in Altoona, IA for six months, Dave as a rides assistant and Suzann as a cashier. Then they found what seemed like the perfect workamper opportunity near the Gulf Coast of TX. The site location was perfect; two Wal-Marts within an easy drive, a bookstore, a library, a Dairy Queen and the Texas coastline were alluring close-by retreats. The job was guaranteed until October 2011, with the distinct possibility of renewal. Dave was a park handyman and Suzann was an office assistant. All was going well until they saw an ad for the jobs they were holding listed on a workamper website. While fulfilling their job duties, the Ellingsworths had observed park mismanagement and other irregularities that made them uncomfortable. They decided to leave their positions before the situation deteriorated further. With that job’s sudden end, they headed back to Springfield, MO in May 2011, to regroup. On their way home, one of their beloved greyhounds died unexpectedly and the second one died recently.
Workamping is another option in the pursuit of employment during a relatively stagnant US jobs market. The American workforce is being forced to change dramatically in ways that were not demanded of recent generations. The days of working for a single company all your working life and earning a pension that will support you adequately in retirement are ending. Employers now demand less overhead and more productivity in order to increase profits. Full-time workers who receive higher pay and benefits are being replaced by as-needed, contract, freelance and part-time workers who are offered lower pay and fewer, if any, benefits. Large corporations are shifting profit centers offshore and taking with them the most valuable employees who are willing to relocate, while downsizing those who are less skilled and less mobile.
The Ellingsworths are resigned to living their current lifestyle for as long as necessary. Suzann says, “I can’t anticipate retiring, since there’s no retirement income. The RV is home until it isn’t. We would never buy another house, since we wouldn’t want to lose it. But we're managing. It is a true day-at-a-time lifestyle.” There are 25 million unemployed and underemployed deciding what they will do next to find a job. Workamping is not the road chosen by most jobless, but for the Ellingsworths and thousands of others it is, for now, the only available road.