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Holiday season fills campgrounds with Amazon workers

Amy Scott Dec 21, 2017
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The Sweazeas' camper, decked out for Christmas.
Amy Scott/Marketplace

On one of the first really cold nights of December, the Green River Stables campground was still packed with RVs.

The one decked out with blue Christmas lights belongs to Steve and Karen Sweazea, from Paris, Tennessee. Inside, there’s a gas fireplace and big screen TV. Steve cracked open a can of chili to heat in the microwave.

The Sweazeas are part of what Amazon calls its CamperForce. Every fall, hundreds of mostly retired folks drive to Campbellsville, Kentucky to work the holiday season. Amazon pays for their campsites and covers their electricity.

“Right now we’re about a week or two away from leaving, so everybody’s hunkered down and staying warm,” Karen said.

“There’s an excitement that builds up, too, as you start getting closer to the finish,” Steve added.

Karen is 57 years old, Steve about to turn 56. They served for 20 years in the Army — Karen in military intelligence, Steve in transportation and logistics.

“I decided some years back that I was going to work really hard half my life,” Steve said, and “not quite work as hard the other half.”

So ten years ago, they retired from the military, packed up their trailer and hit the road on what Karen called their “grand tour.”

“We did like 39 states the first time we had it out, and that’s when we found out how addictive it was,” Steve said.

That’s also when they learned about workamper.com, a website that matches RV travelers with seasonal jobs. In the spring and summer, the Sweazeas mostly work at campgrounds or resorts. Steve does maintenance, while Karen works in the office. In the fall, they come to Amazon. This is their seventh season.

Don Bourdeaux, 69, works as a seasonal picker at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Campbellsville, KY.

The program started in 2010 as a novel way to staff the holiday rush, said Carlos DeLaGarza, general manager of the Campbellsville fulfillment center.

“Many of them are former professionals in their own right,” he said, including teachers, military and business leaders. “They bring a pretty diverse background and actually teach us a lot of things, too.”

Like how to do the RV thing. Inspired by the CamperForce, DeLaGarza bought his own camper a few years ago and drove his family to Yellowstone.

This year Steve Sweazea is working in the warehouse as a picker. Wearing a blue T-shirt and shorts, he pushed a cart down a long aisle between two rows of metal shelves, and picked up a toy bound for who knows where.

“Thomas the Train,” he said, scanning the label and dropping it in a yellow plastic bin. “Everybody knows Thomas.”

After he filled a few yellow bins, he deposited them onto a conveyor belt that snaked through the warehouse to the packing stations, where Karen was sliding a light-up Christmas sweater into a plastic shipping pouch.

“Packing is very, very easy,” she said, tossing the sealed package onto another conveyor belt. “You basically just throw it on and there it goes.”

Steve and Karen Sweazea, at their campground near Campbellsville, Kentucky.

Steve and Karen Sweazea, at their campground near Campbellsville, Kentucky.

The pay starts at $11.50 an hour, plus time-and-a-half for overtime. The Sweazeas typically work from mid-October until a few days before Christmas and then, flush with cash, head to Florida.

“We just live large down there, like a grand vacation for three or four months before we start doing something else again,” Steve said.

That same adventurous spirit inspired Annette and Don Bourdeaux, from Minnesota, to retire early, after careers in law enforcement and the travel industry.

“Don and I tend to be ‘why not?’ people,” Annette, 65, said.

With Don’s pension, they don’t really need to work.

“You know, retirement is really boring,” said Don, 69, sitting in a huge plush rocker in his camper after a 10-hour shift at Amazon. “You have to keep on moving, and that’s what we’re doing with this lifestyle.”

It’s not just retirees. Linsday and Greg Johannessen are in their 40s and doing their first stint with CamperForce. They left behind a house in Charlotte to tour the country with their four kids.

“We wanted to leave a legacy for our children, of making memories,” Linsday said, “and being able to travel and see the United States together as a family.”

They’ve harvested sugar beets in North Dakota. After Amazon, they’ll work a rodeo and livestock show in Houston. The kids, ages 11 to 17, do homeschool.

When their shift ended at 5 o’clock, Steve and Karen Sweazea headed back to their “home on wheels.” They walked their pug Maggie to the campground office to check their mail. They’d been doing some online Christmas shopping of their own, and a couple of packages awaited them with a familiar logo.

“I believe it came from Amazon,” Steve said, laughing. “Amazon Prime.”

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