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Campers help Amazon keep up with holiday rush

Published: Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013 12:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Kristin Dale puts shoes on her 18-month-old daughter, Aubrey, in the family's trailer Thursday at Campbellsville, Ky. The family of four has been living at an RV campground while Kristin's husband and Aubrey's father works full time as a seasonal employee at the Amazon.com warehouse in the Kentucky town.

CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – Twinkling lights, ornament-strewn trees and bustling campgrounds. Those are signs of the Christmas season in this Kentucky town, where the Amazon.com distribution center recruits an armada of RV owners as seasonal workers to help fill holiday orders.

They’re dubbed the “CamperForce” by the world’s largest online retailer. Hundreds of campers are assigned packing, sorting and collection duties at Amazon warehouses in Kentucky, Kansas and Nevada – roles meant to keep orders flowing during the yuletide rush.

Swarms of workers take up temporary residence in campgrounds. For many, it’s another short-term stint on a nonstop journey. It’s a lifestyle and mindset for retirees, empty nesters and younger parents who shuck traditions of home and work to roam from campsite to campsite, job to job.

“It’s a job, it’s not a career, so you don’t have to take it so seriously,” said Ron Dale, a college graduate with a business degree. “Go and have a good time. ... You don’t have the stress of thinking, ‘I’ve got to perform at an unbelievable level. I’ve got to work extra hours so the boss knows I’m dedicated.’ ”

It gives him more time to spend with his wife, 7-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter, he said.

Since 2010, Amazon has recruited campers for its distribution centers in Campbellsville, Ky., Coffeyville, Kan., and Fernley, Nev. – places with modest populations where the company has to cast a wider net to bring in enough temporary workers to fill its needs.

The stints last about three months, and the hours on the job tend to grow longer as Christmas nears.

Dale, who just logged a 60-hour work week, said: “I’m the guy who grabs the presents and sends them to the kids for Christmas.”

Some jobs include plenty of lifting and bending over, as well as walking up to five to 10 miles a day.

Seasonal workers, including campers, play “an important role” in filling customer orders during the holiday season, said company spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman. On its peak day in 2012 – Nov. 26 – Amazon customers ordered more than 26.5 million items worldwide, or 306 items a second.

Amazon has said it expects a busier holiday season this year.

Overall, the Seattle-based company said it was hiring 70,000 full-time seasonal workers around the country during this holiday season. Seasonal workers at its order fulfillment centers are eligible for health care benefits and, on average, earn 94 percent of the wages of regular employees.

The influx of work campers is felt across the communities, too, with more people eating in local restaurants and buying groceries and fuel. Entertainment venues can also benefit; the Dales, for example, have a bowling night each week.

“It does bring a boost to the local economy,” said Sandy Jenner, executive director of the Fernley Chamber of Commerce in Nevada.

As an incentive, Amazon pays camping fees for the seasonal workers who start arriving in early fall.

The migration has provided a windfall for campgrounds near Campbellsville.

Amazon seasonal workers were occupying all 82 campsites at Green River Stables, an RV campground and horse camp.

Without the temporary workers, the campground would likely be empty this time of year, said its owner, Darrell Wise.

“It’s all about Santa Claus,” he said.

Wise has invested his Amazon-related income to expand his operation, which started with 16 campsites in 2002.

“They’ve been a godsend to us,” he said. “Every campsite I’ve built, Amazon has filled it.”

At Green River Lake State Park, 48 campsites were filled because of demand from Amazon workers, said park manager Sharion L. Abney. Until they started showing up, the campground closed after November for winter. Now, it stays open through December.

Amazon-related business hasn’t been as lucrative for Big Chief RV Park in Kansas, which hosts campers working for Amazon at Coffeyville. The fee paid by Amazon doesn’t cover all the utility bills, and the RV park ends up absorbing some of those costs, said park manager Debra Harris.

“It hasn’t been real great,” she said. “We’re trying to accommodate. We’ve been on the road for many years, too, and we know what it was like to RV.”

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