It's 5:30 p.m. outside a huge Amazon fulfillment center in Fernley, Nev., population 19,000. Workers pour out of the doors as a new wave of employees arrive. They're putting in close to 12-hour shifts round the clock during the final Christmas rush.
Some employees leave and go home to RVs, a few of them parked, ironically, in a Walmart parking lot across the street.
These are "workampers," temporary seasonal workers who roam the country in Winnebagos and Fleetwoods. They're filling the 31 RV parks around Fernley, east of Reno, to work for another few weeks at a center Amazon has had here since 1999.
"I've gotten to know a lot of really cool people, and I'm really going to miss them," says 50-year-old Sharon Scofield. "But then I'm excited that I get to come back again next year, hopefully, and see them again."
Scofield and her husband have set up temporary residence at the Fernley RV Park, where 60 percent of the 49 spots are occupied by members of Amazon's "camperforce". Temporary employees are paid about $12 an hour, plus overtime, and Scofield plans to use her income to pay for gas for her Winnebago all year. "The work is hard," she says. What does she do for fun after hours? "Sleep."
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Amazon says it's hired 50,000 seasonal workers and may keep some of them after the holidays. Workampers say the company recruits during the off season in places like Quartzsite, Ariz., where many of them winter.
Jim Melvin is in his second season for Amazon. "It gives me extra money to travel with." This 68-year-old retiree from California says he walks up to 10 miles a day picking merchandise inside the Amazon facility. "When you walk into it, you know you're gonna work hard." He's hoping to save enough money to buy a car to tow behind his rig. Melvin blogs about his life on the road and the people he meets. "They're fun...you see the same people," he laughs.
The seasonal workers spend money in Fernley and Reno, an area recovering from the recession more slowly than the rest of the country.
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Amazon even pays the rent for temporary employees at RV parks it contracts with. "It's necessary for parks like this to survive," says Bernard Roberts, general manager at the River's Edge RV Park in Sparks. "This particular park is not a destination park." He says seasonal workers provide about 40 percent of his business, and rents range from $350 to $575 a month.
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Near the Amazon warehouse, Wai Louie serves up lunch at Louie's China Bistro. "Without Amazon, the whole city would be in trouble."
Soon, however, the estimated 400 seasonal workers will be pulling out of Fernley. Most temporary jobs end Dec. 23, and then they're gone...until next year.
Despite the hard work, Sharon Scofield hopes to get hired on again next year. "When I'm wrapping these presents, it makes me feel good knowing that I put that thing in there and I'm getting it out the door, and I love that challenge."