The past few months have seen me take a break from writing and constant travel in order to don a new hat for a while, that of a small town blue collar American worker. It seems that almost a traditional part of the full time RV lifestyle involves some form of ‘workamping’ – putting in a day’s work in exchange for room and board and hopefully a wage of some sort, if you are lucky.
This year during our constant roaming, while I have been afforded the great privilege to be able to experience sights, sounds and smells that many out there will never have the chance to, you might find it odd to hear that I have somewhat missed the more mundane task of ‘work’.
“What?!” I hear you cry. Yes, that is right. I have begun to miss the routine and motivation that comes with having a normal, everyday job – a reason to get myself out of bed early in the morning, a focused purpose to my day with goals to achieve, mingling with other people in the same situation and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
And while I realise that in part I can make these things happen through other aspects of my RV travel life, there is something still deeply societary in me that can only be filled by going and doing a hard day’s work to earn my pennies.
With that in mind, once I returned back to Belle and Loops after my extended stay at home in England, we made a beeline from Michigan to Campbellsville, Kentucky to meet my first workamping fate – a winter Peak Season with Amazon CamperForce.
Now if you are a fellow or future traveller and have ever considered earning money on the go, the likelihood is very high that you will have looked into the possibility of working at Amazon for Peak. When I began my research into workamping, Amazon became such a frequently returned suggestion I pretty soon began to feel that it was almost like a rite of passage, that in order to be considered a true ‘Workamper’, you had to face and complete at least one Peak Season with the behemoth online retailer and have some tale of woe to go with it.
And so in June of last year, after much convincing of Loops (“I’m sure the bus will be just fine in freezing temperatures, possibly snow, and you’ll love just sitting in a campground doing nothing for two months in the cold”), I dutifully filled out my online application and waited to see what would happen.
As it turns out, not much.
For after you complete the basic details regarding yourself, your previous work experience and one of those brain squeezing psychometric tests (honestly, it wasn’t bad at all and the whole application was one of the fastest I’d ever done), you then sit and wait to hear back. And wait a bit more. And then wait even more.
Being the first time applying to this company, I had no idea what to expect in terms of contact and so after a while I simply assumed I hadn’t been selected for consideration and began to let a small wave of disappointment and a smidge of failure wash over me. After all, it’s never nice to not feel wanted.
However, not to fear, for eventually I received an email telling me the chances looked good that I would be needed (or something to that effect) and to continue watching this space. And watching. And a bit more watching.
You may be getting the idea that speedy communication is not Amazon’s forte, and in the case of applying for CamperForce that is true, you just need to be patient. At some point I received a phone call, again confirming I wanted the job and to ask about my availability (some people start work as early as August and I believe the last intake is around mid-November), but I certainly would not call it an interview by any stretch.
The first information starts to flow about a couple months before you start work – I opted to begin in the last week of October, which turned out to be just the right amount of time for me – this is when you begin getting information about the site you have opted to work at (there were only two on offer by the time I applied; Murfreesboro, TN and Campbellsville, KY). I had originally opted to work at the Tennessee site, there seemed to be a fair amount of reviews around which sounded like the people where nice and sociable which was a big draw for me to go do some work in the first place (I’ve missed hanging out with other people, it’s tough to make friends when you’re constantly on the move), and for Loops it seemed that the weather might be better than further north in Kentucky.
Unfortunately, when the list of Amazon approved campgrounds was finally emailed out (you have to pick one off of the list, call and book yourself in and Amazon picks up the bill at the end of the season – a big draw of this work offer), it turned out that after Loops perused the list, checked Google maps for distance and satellite views of the sites, he didn’t like the look of any of them for a long term stay and I didn’t like any of them for distance to work.
So now we were in a pickle.
I still wanted to work and so I contacted the CamperForce organiser, Kelly, and he got back to me saying that he still had space for me to transfer my application to Kentucky if I was interested. I decided to roll the dice, take my chances with better campsites and said yes.
In comes my second list and once again, we go researching.
Now you might think that this sounds all very picky, like, who cares where you park your bus? But really we do have to take a number of things into consideration.
First, we are going to be there for two months, so we want a place we feel relatively comfortable and happy with for an extended stay. We like to have full hook-ups (FHU) for convenience (some sites only offered 30amp electric, for winter we definitely need 50 amp for the heating required, and in some cases the campgrounds only had a dump station, not sewerage, meaning it’s a pain to disconnect everything once or twice a week to dump the tanks plus having to think about conserving water so the tanks don’t fill so quickly) and Loops likes to have the satellite TV working – so minimal tree coverage in the direction of the incoming signal.
For me, the distance to and from work was top on the list of priorities – a 30 minute commute each way was too much to put up with for me for this job – think about doing this at 5.45am in winter and then again after a gruelling 10 hour shift on your feet all day, up to 6 days per week, plus traffic, plus petrol cost. I wanted to be as close as possible to the warehouse so I could get as much sleep and rest as possible and to save as much money as I could from my earnings.
We felt there were two good opportunities on the list for us, Three Springs RV Resort and Heartland RV Park. Loops liked the first and I, the second. Three Springs offered FHU and a really pretty location with trees (but not too many) and grass – but was still a 20 minute drive away from work. Heartland, on the other hand, was literally a 5 minute walk away from the Amazon building which was situated just across the road, but was completely soulless to look at and live in; FHU’s and TV, yes, but can accurately be described as a grey gravel car park and not much else.
Given that I was going to be at work all day and Loops was going to provide my stay at home support (completing the much needed tasks of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, checking the bus etc.), I gave in and booked Three Springs because I felt it was important he at least have a nice place to spend the day when confined to the site and hopefully meet some friendly people while there.
OK, campsite booked. What next?
Oh, that’s right, some more waiting.
It’s really the month before work begins that you start to receive the deluge of emails from Kelly, our Amazon co-ordinator, and the HR department.
First point of order – a drug test. Yes, in order to be offered employment you have to submit to a drug test 30 days beforehand, which for me is a first. In the 22 years of my working life in the UK, I have never once been asked to complete a drug test in order to get a job. In fact, I have no idea if it’s even legal for them to ask of such a thing? But over here in the US, I’ve seen a number of jobs that require this, to demonstrate they are a drug free workplace, I guess?
Anyway, the process really is simple. A chap from Amazon simply asked where I would camped be for the next few days (we were still in Michigan at the time) and then next day I had a form emailed through to me with an order for a drug test at a local Quest Diagnostics Lab in the local town, 10 minutes from our campground. I drove over (they offer a walk in service), signed myself in and was called through in about 5 minutes. Being geeky as I am, I found just the whole process rather intriguing. I listened to the nurse’s instructions very carefully – you must wash your hands right there in front of her, take the sample cup and walk to the bathroom across the hall, pee in the cup but NOT flush the toilet (she’s right there listening if you do!), come back and give her the cup and wash your hands in front of her again. She then labels your sample and asks you to sign a document to say it’s yours and you take full responsibility for what’s found in it, I guess. And job done. Less than 10 minutes to complete. Note of advice – drink loads before you go, just in case.
Next point of business – sign up for Amazon’s online portal to read and electronically sign 3,000 pages of documents relating to every subject under the sun. It took me a whole evening to do this, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t selling them my soul….or secretly buying a lifetime’s Prime membership I couldn’t get out of.
In the final week leading up to my start date, there were about 5 repeat emails from Kelly detailing our first week of training and work – where to be on the first morning, what to bring/not bring etc. – you really had no excuse to not know what was going on or to get it wrong.
The only thing I was unclear of by the time it came to my first day though was what I was actually going to be doing and when. It seems that you are given a coding somewhere on your online paperwork that tells you what job you’ve been assigned and your shift, but unless you’re eagle-eyed or have worked before and know the fact you need to look for this code, you will be like me and turn up still with no clue to what awaits you. I had indicated on my application that I would prefer a day shift (6.30am – 5pm) and would like to have the role of picker (selecting items from shelves and bins in the warehouse to fulfil orders). Luckily when my code was pointed out to me by a chap who was a 5th year repeat worker, it turned out I got exactly what I had hoped for! Be aware – this doesn’t always happen and while they may try and place you where you’ve asked, if work needs had dictated it, I just as easily could have been placed as a night time stower (putting inventory into the bins for pickers to collect from).
Part of the Amazon package is that they will pay for your campsite for two days prior to starting work, but in our case we opted to arrive another day sooner and pay for an extra night, just to get settled and see the lie of the land. Interestingly enough, possibly due to my continued grumbling about the drive I was going to have to face to and from work, Loops suggested that we swing by Heartland RV Park before heading to our booked site, just to have a look at it and see what spaces might be left (you cannot reserve a place at this park, it is first come/first serve unlike all the others).
On arrival they still had a number of spaces available (though be aware that parts of this park do flood when it rains, your RV tires and hoses might be sitting in a puddle if you’re not careful). We had a chat to the lady inside, looked at a few sites on offer and pulled into one just with the idea that we could spend the night while using the jeep to check out our actual booked camp beforehand.
Long story short, for whatever reason, Loops became totally amenable to the idea of Heartland (I personally think it might have had to do with realising how far we were from the conveniences of town based at the other RV park, from Heartland the town is just a 5 minute drive). I of course was over the moon with the fact I could just walk back and forth from work.
When the day of reckoning finally dawned, I headed over for my first taste of Amazon.
The first day was all about introducing us to Amazon in general, Campbellsville and the CamperForce program. We were given a talk, shown a video about the company, and then shown a second really incredibly disturbing video of what to do in the event of a gunman walking into the building – another (unhappy) first for me to even consider this. My big take away from this initial session – we were constantly drilled that while speed was obviously important to be able to fulfil customer orders quickly, more important was taking the time to get the orders correct so customers where happy first time round and to do our jobs safely. Both are themes that were reiterated pretty much every day I worked.
We did half a day of safety school which gave us a tour of the areas we would be working and ensuring we knew how to move about the building without being run over by machinery, operate the conveyor belts without getting our fingers mangled and be able to pick orders with running our carts into each other. All in all, it was health and safety and I don’t really think you want to know any more than that!
Finally, we received training in our job areas. Everyone went off in different directions dependant on their role. As I said, I was destined to be a picker – moving around the massive 17 acre, multi-floored warehouse finding objects located in drawers and shelves, scanning them with a handheld scanner, putting them in my yellow tote box and once finished with my batch of items, taking the tote to a conveyor belt where they disappeared into the distance for a packer to deal with, I suppose.
The two other jobs I could have chosen from were stower or packer. The stowers I met while working seemed incredibly unhappy with their lot in life. I don’t know what it was about their job, but none of them seemed to enjoy it. The pickers on the other hand all seemed relatively cheerful, exhausted and with feet aching, but no-one was outright miserable. I didn’t meet a single person in the packing department (I don’t even know where they hid them in the building) but from what I understand they pretty much stand stationary all day, emptying totes of items, scanning them and selecting the correct boxes/bags to pack items into and sticking labels on them. I don’t know if this was a good job or not, but I will say that picking suited me and if I had to choose again, even with the feet, knee and back aches, I would still do picking as my first choice.
My picking training was pretty simple. We were shown how to log in to our scanners, how to locate items in the building, how to scan an item and what to do if we came across a problem with an item. And that was it really. It isn’t rocket science, but you do need to keep a close eye on what you’re being asked to select. For instance, in some cases when you go to select an item of clothing, let’s say a pair of socks, and you open the drawer to find 30 different types of sock – same brand but different colours, sizes and style – you can’t just pick one and hope for the best, you have to painstakingly go through each one as quickly as you can to ensure you have the right match (which begs the question why Smartwool must make all of their socks so damn hard to discern one from the other). The wrong item and the scanner will yell at you. But worse than that is to accidently scan the wrong item, notice too late what you’ve done but have the scanner accept it due to a barcode number glitch, setting off a whole cascade of events involving locating a radio, calling for help, waiting for someone to appear and explain what a dimwit you’ve been and hoping they can fix it; all the while thinking about how your ‘pick rate’ is going down because you are stood there waiting and not working.
Anyway, when all is said and done, I am fully trained and ready for my 7 week working stint. So let me give you the overview of what I learned from the experience….
Working a ten hour shift at Amazon for four, five or six days per week is physically exhausting, so much so, unless you try it, you will have no idea what this statement REALLY means.
No-one will escape from having their feet and knees ache to the point of tears from working at Amazon during peak – I don’t care what your age or level of physical fitness is.
Mandatory fifth day overtime can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how tired you feel on day four.
Your life will be ruled by a time clock and possibly some annoying bells/chimes telling you when break starts and finishes. You will look and feel like an ant in a colony, trudging with everyone else to and from the clocks.
Oddly, I really started to enjoy the little start up meetings in the morning and afternoon, doing our group stretches and guessing how many times we will be physically shown how to use a step ladder or slowly explained to that if items are above the lip of the tote, it means it is too full.
The wonderfulness of being able to walk to and from work cannot be overstated.
You will make some friends easily. I had a little group of four people I regularly ate lunch with and had breaks with which I thoroughly enjoyed. I didn’t make any friends who I went and hung out with outside of work but I do know that a fair few people did – especially the returners who already knew one another from past seasons.
People buy a ton of crap when shopping online – for the record, no, that 70’s style gold glitter bomber jacket with stretchy cuffs and waist you just purchased will not look good in any situation, ever.
Personally I was rather disturbed/scared/scarred for life by some of the apparel that I had no idea even existed in the world, let alone stocked by Amazon.
I was greatly surprised and rather happy by the fact we occasionally got free food – Thanksgiving dinner, pizza lunch, burger and hot dog lunch, fruit and snacks randomly turning up at break time.
Checking my free raffle tickets every two hours became an unexpected highlight of my working day. Winning two $10 gift cards to Subway practically made my head explode from excitement. This should give you an indication of the level or boredom that can (and will) set in from working this incredibly repetitive and mundane job.
Werther’s Original are the best sweet to suck on if you are feeling sorry for yourself and need to feel a bit of comfort during your day and Lifesaver sweets are the best if you need a zingy pep to keep you going just before lunch or at the end of the day. Trust me on this.
Even though you get two days off a week (three if there is no overtime), unless you have superhuman strength and endurance, you’re most likely going to need these just to lie in bed or on the sofa recovering from the sheer fatigue your body is suffering the rest of the week.
I am thankful that I had a person at home doing all of the chores for me and that when I finished work all I had to do was walk in the door, shower, eat the food put in front of me and then collapse in bed at 6.30pm with a book until I fell asleep about 20 minutes later. I couldn’t imagine the misery we would face if both of us were working.
It’s worth noting that you are allowed to go into Campbellsville and register with the Taylor County Library to borrow books if you are in town to work seasonally for Amazon, all you need is an ID with a registered home address. I would also like to point out that this might possibly be my favourite library in the world right now; it has an amazingly cosy feel to it, just the right selection of books and you can bring your own mug to get cup of coffee or hot chocolate at their little machine for a dollar, sit and read all day in their comfy chairs. Also the chap who is on the desk in there is highly commended for helping me find books in several different series I had started while out on the road and could never find the remaining ones – he had them all hidden in his stock somewhere, even if they weren’t on the shelves. Top marks!
If you do manage to find some spare energy – Makers Mark Whisky Distillery just half an hour away is very much worth the time and $18 tour fee. I don’t even drink alcohol and I thought the tour was excellent. There are also several other distilleries in the area to visit as part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail if you’re interested.
Oh and finally, the general facts if you are considering applying to Amazon – pay at Campbellsville was $10.75 per hour, with time and a half for any overtime over 40 hours (this rate differs with different Amazon locations). If you complete your seasonal contract in full, you then get a further bonus of $1 for every hour you worked overall. Your campsite will be paid for in full the time you are there, for two days prior to your work start date and two days after your last day if you choose to use it. Amazon locations to apply to can vary – when I looked this week, 2018 locations right now being offered seemed to be: Murfreesboro, TN, Campbellsville, KY, Jeffersonville, IN and Haslet, TX. This might have already changed or change later in the year. I guess it all is down to business need. Shifts can be night, day or mid-day/mid-evening (though they may do away with that one) and they offer about three different work days shifts starting and finishing on different days of the week – you select which you hope to get on the paperwork they send you after you’ve received an initial offer of work. During your shift you get two 15 minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch – make the most of these and ensure you take them on time, they will feel like a lifeline when you are downing in a sea of Amazon apparel.
Right, well, there you have it.
I think I’ve bored you to tears with my Amazon experience. I hope it may be of some help to others considering the role. I’d like to say all this information reflects MY experience of my first season at only one location. I have no idea what any other site may be like; I know there are some other bloggers out there who have been to other locations so I suggest to anyone considering applying, do a few more Google searches to see what you find.
Overall, I survived and completed my first full Peak Season with Amazon. I’m proud of myself for doing so. I stuck it out and did so pretty successfully. I know there are plenty of people out there who wouldn’t want to do the work or couldn’t hack it after they started, so I’m giving myself a pat on the back for my achievement.
If you’re wondering if I would do it again, well, I just completed my application for the 2018 season last night. As long as our plans don’t go awry, and they want me to return, I’m willing to go battle the beast for another season.
“Why on earth….?” You might be pondering?
I won’t deny the hard nature of the work; my body felt beaten and shattered every single day. My feet were painful to the touch for the first three weeks, and even by the end of week eight, while they weren’t so sensitive, there was not a single day that I didn’t finish work to rush back to the bus, pull my shoes off and put my feet up asap as they continually ached. My knees were constantly sore; my left knee in particular felt continually swollen and had to be iced every night. My existing tendinitis flared up in my right foot just in the last two weeks of work, as did the ache in my back.
I have never worked such a physically demanding job in all my life, one were you have no real control over the breaks you take, not even the chance to stop for a breath once in a while; you are constantly on the move. Neither have I had to push myself mentally so much, just to keep telling myself to plod on, keep going and don’t give up; don’t give in to the monotony of the job!
While I have read some accounts of people trashing their experience of CamperForce and complaints about working for Amazon, I will simply say that I felt fully informed for what I was walking in to. Amazon is very upfront about the amount of time you work, the type of work, how much you are on your feet etc. The only thing I can say is that while my mind may have processed the logic of what I was told so I mentally expected what was coming, you really can’t prepare your body for what happens to it – I accepted the pain and exhaustion, but it was still an overwhelming shock to my system. I simply chose to battle through it where a lot of people wouldn’t or couldn’t. However, I would never consider this role as a full time job, I would simply have no life if I tried to push myself like that day in and out every week, I don’t know how others do it, but there were over 200 workers (I think that’s the right number) there at Campbellsville this Christmas celebrating their 15th year of full time work with the company – so my hat goes off to them, well done!
At the end of the day my opinion of CamperForce is that the work serves its purpose and you are justly rewarded for it. In my case, it allowed for Loops and I to take a break in our travels for a bit, something I think we both benefitted from. It allowed me to go back to work, to take pride in a job well done and feel a sense of normality and routine again. It gave me a chance to earn some spending money, and for us to try and save on fuel and camping fees for two months. I had the opportunity to meet a variety of people, to feel part of a team where we all faced the same challenges day in and out and could empathise with each other or swap funny stories about our picks from the day.
I should also take the time to say that I feel pretty lucky to have worked the season at Campbellsville specifically, I found the people there (I’m talking about the regular staff now, not just other campers) incredibly welcoming and friendly and that I felt there was a really good heart to the place. I thought that our team leaders, Will and Kate (yes honestly, though not the royal ones), truly made the effort to make us feel appreciated for what the team achieved and the staff really seemed proud of the targets they met (and apparently smashed through). Any time you asked for help it was given, we were encouraged to check about things that we weren’t sure of and an attempt was made to make the holiday season fun with games and prizes (and even a brass band!), even though you had to work really hard.
So all in all, that’s why I am considering going back again.
As for right now, I’m going to have a cup of tea and pause for thought over my next blog which will be more in spirit of a New Year and thinking about some goals for this year.
I wish you all good health and happiness of heart for 2018!