American “nomads” and their “love-hate” relationship with Amazon’s CamperForce

David Brancaccio and Daniel Shin Mar 16, 2021
Heard on:
"Nomads" live in RVs, campers or other vehicles and travel around the U.S., picking up seasonal work to make ends meet. Pictured: From left to right, nomads Hakam Salahuddin and Rebecca Bailey, and their dog, Beefy. Courtesy of Salahuddin and Bailey

American “nomads” and their “love-hate” relationship with Amazon’s CamperForce

David Brancaccio and Daniel Shin Mar 16, 2021
Heard on:
"Nomads" live in RVs, campers or other vehicles and travel around the U.S., picking up seasonal work to make ends meet. Pictured: From left to right, nomads Hakam Salahuddin and Rebecca Bailey, and their dog, Beefy. Courtesy of Salahuddin and Bailey

Update (April 26, 2021): “Nomadland” won the Academy Award for best picture, Frances McDormand won the Academy Award for best actress and Chloé Zhao won the Academy Award for best director, becoming the first woman of color to do so.

The Oscar-nominated “Nomadland” stars Frances McDormand as a widow from Nevada who sells her possessions and hits the road in a van after she loses her job at a local gypsum plant when it shuts down. She later meets up with other “nomads” who live in RVs, campers or other vehicles and travel around the U.S., picking up seasonal work to make ends meet.

Amazon’s CamperForce program is mentioned in the film, which was directed by Chloé Zhao. The program has been offering work to nomads for over a decade now.

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke with two nomads — Rebecca Bailey and Hakam “Sal” Salahuddin, RV nomads and bloggers — about their experience with CamperForce and why the job is a “love-hate” relationship for them. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Hey, where are you?

Hakam “Sal” Salahuddin: Well, we’re in Charleston, South Carolina, right now. We’re making our way up to Virginia and on to some further travels, but currently in South Carolina.

Brancaccio: That’s great. I mean, you’ve had a base there over the years, right?

Rebecca Bailey: Yes, we both retired from South Carolina. So we spent a little more than 18 years here before we hit the road full time.

An Amazon fulfillment center in Phoenix, Arizona.
An Amazon fulfillment center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtesy of Rebecca Bailey and Hakam Salahuddin)

Brancaccio: So tell me how it works as you integrate, occasionally doing some work for Amazon, as you travel hither and yon? The company has, I guess, it’s a program that acknowledges that camper RV folk might want to work at these places?

Salahuddin: Yes, it does. For several years, now, they have gone ahead and reached out to “RVers” or RV nomads, and and it’s seasonal work for us through the peak season, which is usually the November-December timeframe.

Brancaccio: And Rebecca, you’ve done this too?

Bailey: Yeah, this will be my third year, this coming November and December, if I choose to work it. I didn’t work it last year. Sal has done it for the last four years now. So this will be his fourth.

Brancaccio: You get the camper or RV close enough to the facility where you’re going to spend a little bit of time during the seasonal period and you get to choose what kind of work you’ll do for Amazon?

Bailey: Well, in 2018, when we started working with CamperForce, we did. We got to choose our shift and our job assignment. Unfortunately, that was the first and last year we got to do that since that’s kind of out of our control now. So most CamperForce employees won’t find out what shift or job they’re going to be assigned to until right around two weeks before their start date.

Brancaccio: So it could be like an overnight shift, for instance?

Beefy (left) and Richey, Hakam Salahuddin and Rebecca Bailey's dogs.
Beefy (left) and Richey, Hakam Salahuddin and Rebecca Bailey’s dogs. (Courtesy of Bailey and Salahuddin)

Bailey: It could. You know, for us in 2018, when we got to choose, we intentionally chose opposite shifts. Sal worked the overnight shift, midnights, and I worked days, simply because we travel with dogs. And it’s a long shift at Amazon, it’s 10 hours. So you know, with the drive to and from, it’s about a 12-, 13-hour day. So to leave the dogs unattended that long is not something we wanted to do. You know, you hope that we get opposite shifts but it didn’t always work out that way.

Brancaccio: You mentioned you can’t actually pick which task you’ll be assigned to once you’re in there.

Salahuddin: Yeah, once you receive your final offer letter about, like Rebecca was saying, a week or two weeks out, you’ll be given your designated position. And what you usually have is you have a “picker,” which runs around the warehouse and grabs merchandise that has been ordered online. And then that is sent up to the “packers,” which is another position, that goes ahead and boxes everything up and mails it out. And then they have “stowers,” which get merchandise from the trucks and then they put them in the bins for the pickers to come by and fill the orders.

Brancaccio: I mean, if it was up to you, what would each of you choose of those three tasks?

Bailey: We both prefer to be pickers. We kind of have a love-hate relationship with that job. But the other two, you’re standing and stationary for a good majority of the day. At least being a picker, you’re getting some exercise, you’re getting a lot actually. You probably walk between 10 and 15 miles per day. But you’re not just stationary. It’s still very repetitive work, but you see a little bit more of the warehouse and other people than you would if you were doing one of the other jobs I think.

Brancaccio: You said “love-hate,” right there. I mean, it’s money I guess, right? But it’s not all that ennobling, from your point of view?

Bailey: I think most people that we’ve met kind of have a love-hate relationship with Amazon. It really is a great opportunity for RVers to make a decent book in a short amount of time. There’s always opportunity for overtime. You know, there’s an end-of-season bonus and they do contribute to your campground costs. But you do need to be prepared to go there and work. The work itself is going to consume the majority of your day, you will be required to work four to five 10-hour shifts per week, with the opportunity to work a sixth. So if you’re going there to make money, just know that’s probably all you’re pretty much going to do is work versus, you know, another work camping job, where you might have more time off where you can kind of explore the area and that sort of thing.

Salahuddin: Yeah, and one of the things that when you start looking at RVers or nomad lifestyle — we kind of like the outdoors and we kind of like interacting with people. And Amazon is is a warehouse facility where everybody is given a task that is run through a scanner that, basically they’re on a quota, they’re on a time limit. And there’s little interaction. So when we say “love-hate relationship,” we’ll sacrifice that that lack of human interaction for the money, but we really definitely love being outdoors.

Hakam Salahuddin and Rebecca Bailey's RV outside a campground in Steward, Florida.
Hakam Salahuddin and Rebecca Bailey’s RV outside a campground in Stuart, Florida. (Courtesy of Bailey and Salahuddin)

Bailey: Yeah, we’re glad it is temporary. I don’t think we’d want to do it full time.

Brancaccio: Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing with the seasonal work, right? Maybe there’s this period where you’re working long shifts. But I’m hearing you’re not really bonding with other Amazon workers? It’s just too, you know, you’re just too busy?

Bailey: Well, it’s odd because you’re in a warehouse filled with hundreds of people. But there’s very little socializing, because I think everyone’s concerned with reaching their quota. You are on the clock and you are monitored by this scanner, if you’re a picker, that you’re carrying around, to monitor your rate of work, so you do need to keep up. So there’s very little time to stop and speak with people, you know, who are passing by, etc.

Salahuddin: Yeah, and with the pandemic and the different protective measures that Amazon has used — the 6-foot distance and things of that sort — it really has limited the amount of interaction that people can have on the floor with one another. So the main time is during breaks and lunch where you can at least relax your mask while you’re drinking and eating, and maybe carry on a conversation with someone, but on the floor it’s just hustle and bustle.

Hakam Salahuddin leaving Inya National Forest. He's driving in a truck that's towing the RV behind it.
Hakam Salahuddin leaving Inyo National Forest. (The Tin Can Travelers)

Brancaccio: All right, now moving away from Amazon briefly because I’m just like super curious here: In this new movie, she’s got a well-used but customized Ford Econoline van. What do you have? Do you pull a trailer? How’s it work for you?

Bailey: We have a 2017 Airstream 23FB, and 23FB just means it’s 23 feet in length and the bed inside is toward the front of the trailer. And it is a tow along so we tow it behind our Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Brancaccio: I mean, I have got to ask you this: Some people can’t put up with each other in a 2,000-square-foot house. You get along with each other, even though you spend your time probably 2 and 1/2 feet apart all the time?

Bailey: You know, the best advice we can give someone who wants to embark on this lifestyle is you better really like your partner. Because there is no escape, you know? We’ve been together for, I don’t know, 17 or 18 years, married for about 12 or 13 of them. We truly are best friends, we’ve always gotten along, so it has been nothing but a joy. And I mean that literally, since we, you know, headed out on the road three years ago. But we have heard some horror stories, so you better like who you’re with.

Salahuddin: And David, if things get a little heated in the in the trailer, you can always open up the door and take a walk. So, you know, I always have my shoes ready by the door, just in case I might have to go out there and take a walk.

Hakam Salahuddin (left) and Rebecca Bailey at Inyo National Forest.
Hakam Salahuddin (left) and Rebecca Bailey at Inyo National Forest. (Courtesy of Bailey and Salahuddin)

Brancaccio: And you may not have made enduring friendships in the Amazon warehouse, but you’ve got to believe you’re connecting with people where you park the trailer from time to time?

Bailey: We actually have made a couple longtime friends while working at Amazon. We still stay in touch with them. But, like you said, we do meet more and stay in touch with more people that we meet just while we’re out on the road, wherever we happen to be camping or whatever city we happen to be exploring. We meet people, we swap stories over a campfire or dinner and we stay in touch. When we’re actually camp hosting, which is another work camping gig that we do, we meet people from all over the world, and some of whom we’ve actually become very good friends with.

Salahuddin: And one of the things [with] having social media up, we’re able to meet, you know, even a larger variety of people and meet up with them on the road. So it’s fascinating the lifestyle and the desire for people to actually follow along with the travels and then actually meet those people. And I think that’s one of the exciting parts of it.

Correction (March 16, 2021): A previous version of this story misspelled Inyo National Forest.

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