"the silhouette of an RV in motion, with the corporation’s 'smile' logo"
October 4, 2017 12:05 PM   Subscribe

The story of Amazon's Camper­Force. Jessica Bruder describes a cadre of workers who are older, nomadic, and coping with financial disaster. posted by doctornemo (36 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's kind of crazy that retail is so seasonal. Can't we just have Christmas on a different date in each US state?
posted by GuyZero at 12:17 PM on October 4 [2 favorites]


Can't we just have Christmas on a different date in each US state?

As someone who does not really enjoy Christmas and the trappings we've pinned upon it (and ourselves I mean); please god no.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:28 PM on October 4 [13 favorites]


You mean put the corporate earnings balance and regional equity back in Christmas? Hmm, doesn't quite sound right.

Also, while part of this feels like a boon to those cash-strapped retirees who are nomadic, it also feels like another step towards a Paolo Bacigalupi-like near-future, where there are teeming people working to do the most basic of manual labor for mega-corps that inflict annual (biological) terrors on the world for increased profit and corporate security.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:31 PM on October 4 [11 favorites]


This is such a shitty future.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:36 PM on October 4 [29 favorites]


I'm pretty sure people's actual holiday gift-giving does not account for it. I mean, it'd be an uptick, but not like this. The retailers got used to there being an uptick at the end of the year and now the whole model is built around it. Do you actually browse the Amazon Black Friday sales for stuff for presents? I don't. Because in at least the last five years... most of what's for sale isn't really present material. Most of the people I know who've ever bought TVs that way aren't in an economic class where they give presents that're worth hundreds of dollars each. I would be surprised if even half of what gets purchased from Christmas season sales actually winds up as Christmas presents.
posted by Sequence at 12:36 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


My personal (and limited) experience with this phenomenon: We have a travel trailer and camp all over the Midwest and Southeast US for family vacations. In that time , we've met several Amazon "workampers" at various state park campgrounds. What we've seen is for every person forced into this type of situation, there are just as many who chose it willfully for any number of reasons and actually enjoy the freedom and flexibility it provides.

It's not for everyone, and it's not my idea of retirement either. But, it's not exactly the gloom and doom scenario many of these stories seem to portray.
posted by bwvol at 12:43 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


This article is exactly why I am so debt adverse. I live in a modest priced home for my area well below what my income would allow. I max out my Roth, have a supplemental retirement fund, make additional non-shielded investments, and my partner and I save like mad. Neither of expect Social Security will be there for us, so we want to not be in these people's shoes when we retire. When we fight it's generally over how we'll save, not our spending (she's a conservative investor, likes piles of liquidity; I prefer more risk and greater returns). I can feel for these people. They did most everything correctly, except the part where they both lost their entire savings!

Seriously, two retired people can live a long time on $450k. No way should they have had all their eggs in one basket. Reading between the lines they were also not debt adverse. Credit cards will eat you alive as soon as they are able to. Credit card companies don't make billions because people use credit wisely and responsibly.

There's got to be more to this story. How much was their mortgage for example? It said the bottom feel out of their market and they were upside down on their loan. He's 60! Good god, man, why do you have a loan when you don't have any real income? And a 2009 ­Chrysler Town & Country started at $25k in 2009. They defaulted on that car loan. Again, why have a loan at that age?

He was a successful guy. Diversify and live within your means!

If he had been debt adverse, if he'd owned his house and car, and eschewed credit cards entirely, even the loss of his entire nest egg would have been manageable.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:45 PM on October 4 [6 favorites]


Many of the workers who joined Camper­Force were around traditional retirement age, in their sixties or even seventies. They were glad to have a job, even if it involved walking as many as 15 miles a day on the concrete floor of a warehouse... They asked for little in the way of benefits or protections. And though warehouse jobs were physically taxing—not an obvious fit for older bodies—recruiters came to see Camper­Force workers’ maturity as an asset. These were diligent, responsible employees. Their attendance rates were excellent.

“We’ve had folks in their eighties who do a phenomenal job for us,” noted Kelly Calmes, a Camper­Force representative, in one online recruiting seminar.


I mean, it...it sounds pretty gloomy!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:48 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


“We’ve had folks in their eighties who do a phenomenal job for us,” noted Kelly Calmes, a Camper­Force representative, in one online recruiting seminar.

I mean, it...it sounds pretty gloomy!


I don't want to be working in my 80's either! Or 60's and 70's for that matter.
posted by bwvol at 12:51 PM on October 4 [2 favorites]


Seriously, two retired people can live a long time on $450k. No way should they have had all their eggs in one basket.

So it doesn't exactly how all his savings evaporated overnight, but no doubt this guy was screwed twice - by the overall crash, but also by whoever put all his eggs in that crazy high-risk basket. He sounds like he did everything right except trust the wrong financial advisor.
posted by GuyZero at 1:06 PM on October 4 [4 favorites]


I'm really flabbergasted about how their retirement accounts could have both zeroed out in 2008. Wells Fargo would have almost certainly been a broker managed account. What the hell were they invested in? It implied income producing, so were they 100% in a REIT that went under? It feels like there is something missing to their story, and maybe a legal case against a broker who had them invested in something with an inappropriate risk profile for their situation.
posted by COD at 1:07 PM on October 4 [7 favorites]


I don't want to be working in my 80's either! Or 60's and 70's for that matter.

So you do you, but. As I get older I somehow seem to know more and more people who are retired. Funny that. And retirement doesn't sit well with everyone. Some people get downright cranky and isolated in retirement, especially people whose primary social outlet was work.

So while I dislike it when people are economically forced to work until they die, it doesn't surprise me that some people like working as long as they're able.
posted by GuyZero at 1:08 PM on October 4 [6 favorites]


it doesn't surprise me that some people like working as long as they're able.

Exactly - thank you. Goes back to my original point about many folks choosing this lifestyle instead of having it chosen for them.
posted by bwvol at 1:15 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


trust the wrong financial advisor

I think this could be quite a big reason for getting wiped out. My spouse and I retained a financial advisor for all of two or three years when getting started, and had some pretty big questions about some of his advice and the funds he chose. Often with high management fees, often with some relationship with his office, often with poorer returns than a comparable Vanguard fund might have. We educated ourselves (thankfully, my spouse really enjoys digging deep into these questions) and moved our accounts to low fee accounts we manage ourselves.

Too many people don't have the wherewithall or means to manage these things themselves, and trust a financial advisor who may steer their money into funds where they get a kickback and expose the investor to high fees and too much risk. It's quite possible they got royally screwed by an unscrupulous asshole.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:40 PM on October 4 [7 favorites]


When I did a big road trip, I camped out in Quartzite, AZ, with a bunch of folks who live in vans or some form of non-traditional rvs, some of whom are in Bruder's book. For some, it's an interesting alternative lifestyle. Some come to it because they don't like being rooted to one locations, most come to it from being broke. For some, it's something they were forced into, and they're hanging on, just barely. As always in America, health care is a big issue, but being close to Mexico provides cheap prescriptions, dental, and medical care. It's an interesting, unexpected community that doesn't have accurate stereotypes. I'd love to camp with them again.

At 62, I kind of like working, but age discrimination makes it awful much of the time. I'm white-haired & female, and sexism/ ageism/ handicap discrimination pisses me off a great deal of the time. I have too much arthritis to hustle 12-15 miles every day for Amazon. Amazon workers had plenty of stories about injuries and lack of safety in the workplace.

Also, RVs are overpriced and horribly built, for the most part.
posted by theora55 at 1:43 PM on October 4 [6 favorites]


While we are distributing Christmas to optimize throughput, we can also stagger everyone's work hours to eliminate traffic congestion.
posted by idiopath at 2:35 PM on October 4 [6 favorites]


I don't want to be working in my 60's either, but I am.
(or at least not in my current position- is Amazon a bad employer?)
posted by MtDewd at 3:28 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


Dad is 73 and will have to work until the day he dies. I used to smoke and eat cheeseburgers hoping to hit the sweet spot of dying before I get old, but now I've cleaned up so I'll face a grim future myself. Investments? Saving? Ha. Luck and kindness are all that's keeping a roof over my head and my belly full.

God Bless America.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:43 PM on October 4 [5 favorites]


$450k invested in a tax-free municipal bond fund should provide, on average, between $16,650 and $18,000 per year cash income, gross and net. Muni's are second only to US Treasuries in their security and stability. Muni's are essentially immune to market fluctuations, assuming you are not trying to buy and sell them for a profit. Third party insured muni's will pay all distributions no matter the solvency of the issuer. Muni's invest directly in local, county and state infrastructure. Here's where I have mine invested: VWALX
posted by jim in austin at 4:06 PM on October 4 [7 favorites]


He had invested his $250,000 nest egg in a fund that supposedly guaranteed him $4,000 a month to live on.

To get $4k a month from $250k for 15 years you'd need a return rate of 18.2%.

$450k invested in a tax-free municipal bond fund should provide, on average, between $16,650 and $18,000 per year cash income

aka $1500 monthly. Although I assume that's straight interest and not an annuity. And he had $250k.

If someone said "do you want $4k or 1.5k?" most people would choose the higher amount. Although it's basically like asking if they want to fly which is easier to achieve than an 18.2% return.
posted by GuyZero at 4:12 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the part where ALL of their money was wiped out in 2008 was real suspicious to me (not in that I think it's not true, but in that it seems like they got swindled by someone or took a poorly calculated risk). I know people who lost 25% of their investments in 2008 but they have mostly recovered because they invested pretty conservatively (like index funds).

Of course, that's the whole problem with how we manage retirement here - it relies on individuals being good managers of their own wealth, which any behavioral scientist will tell you is a recipe for disaster.
posted by lunasol at 5:27 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


If he had been debt adverse, if he'd owned his house and car, and eschewed credit cards entirely, even the loss of his entire nest egg would have been manageable.

And if we had a robust and equitable safety net, normal people who make poor decisions or who get cheated would be able to preserve more of their quality of life.

I mean, I've made some "smart" choices, like I contribute to my 401k. But I'm agonizingly aware that even so I could very easily spend a couple of decades living in an RV and looking for seasonal work -- and that might be one of the better outcomes. There just isn't much safety net under most of us. I mean, the mean retirement savings for "working age families" in the US is apparently $95,776, but the median is only $5,000.

This couple was well over the average in the savings they had accumulated, but there wasn't anything stopping what was probably a mix of bad luck and risky decisions leaving them with almost nothing.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:07 PM on October 4 [6 favorites]


What we've seen is for every person forced into this type of situation, there are just as many who chose it willfully for any number of reasons and actually enjoy the freedom and flexibility it provides.

Oh fuck yeah, after retirement I would totally move around in an RV and do random jobs that barely paid my living expenses. I would do it now except that I want to build up an emergency fund first. RV living can be very cheap and you're precluded from buying a lot of crap, because there is nowhere to put it.
posted by AFABulous at 6:41 PM on October 4 [2 favorites]


If you're saying that the problem here is personal responsibility, please take one moment to consider just how degraded you're comfortable with your society being.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:54 PM on October 4 [8 favorites]


I've got a friend who's fond of saying that the revolution is her retirement plan.

which like that's a shitty retirement plan that's prolly not going to pan out, but on the other hand the part of this sentence before the first comma describes pretty much all retirement plans available to the working classes.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:05 PM on October 4 [7 favorites]


Neither of expect Social Security will be there for us

sigh. The SSTF (Social Security Trust Fund) currently has nearly $3T in it now. This is the accumulated excess FICA receipts since Reagan raised the FICA rate, along with accrued interest (which is just printed Treasury bonds) and another $200B from when they cut the FICA rate in 2011 & 2012 (also just printed Treasury bonds).

SSA also has available its ability to take 12.4% out of everyone's wages every paycheck, to pay its beneficiaries.

SSA is pretty fuckin' far from broke. Excuse my French.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 8:22 PM on October 4 [9 favorites]


I did cock an eyebrow about losing $450,000 in risky nest-egg investments while still having a mortgage. Not having a mortgage is a pretty damn good investment in IMO.

Sure, you're not getting a ~20% cash income yield, but high yields come with high risk premiums.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 8:27 PM on October 4


I didn’t say I thought SSA would go broke. I think it will be gone. The party currently in charge of everything wants to privatize it. Politicians raid the funds for other expenses.

If it’s there, great. I’ll take it. But it’s not in my retirement calculations.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:34 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


Jessica Bruder just published Nomadland in case people are interested in reading more about Camperforce and precarity and contemporary nomadism. (Disclosure: I'm a friend of hers, haven't read Nomadland yet...)
posted by drapatz at 8:42 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


These people seem bad/dumb/unwise, let's work them to death. Got it that sounds like a totally reasonable punishment
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:24 PM on October 4 [5 favorites]


The walls featured murals of Amazon’s warehouse mascot, a bloblike orange character called Peccy, along with Orwellian slogans like “Problems Are Treasures” and “Variation Is the Enemy.”
Of all the disturbing things in the article, this one is hardly the most significant. But it may be the most intentional. Isn't it enough to make people work crappy jobs for little pay and no benefits or job security without also slapping them on the head every day just for fun? Yuck.
posted by eotvos at 3:27 AM on October 5


If you're saying that the problem here is personal responsibility, please take one moment to consider just how degraded you're comfortable with your society being.

It's not solely personal responsibility. It's also cultural.

These people expected unreasonable returns, had a risk exposure well beyond what was acceptable for their age, were heavily in debt in depreciating assets, seemingly completely financially illiterate, and were living well beyond their means. I don't know what the answer is, but I know it's not in financing $30k vehicles in your 60's, and having credit card debt and a mortgage. Blame who you like. Blame the markets for crashing, or the financial adviser who promised them unrealistic returns, but these stories are only going to get worse and become more common.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:31 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


people really aren't that fucking financially literate, which i suppose you can get at them about, but most of you in this thread talking about return rates and should do this and should do that sound like immense supercilious assholes

my own family are reasonably financially literate but as i run around in the world most people really fucking aren't, and i am kind of tired of seeing people sunday morning quarterback about people doing money stuff when most people are a) never taught how to invest their money b) are trying to do it in a fucking predatory environment

think about how you sound to regular fucking people for god's sake
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 11:04 AM on October 5 [8 favorites]


think about how you sound to regular fucking people for god

There is nothing discussed in this thread that a "regular fucking person" won't learn if they pick up "Retirement Planning for Dummies" and thumb through it. Yes, we do a shit job in this country at financial literacy, but that doesn't excuse people from the responsibility of understanding what they are doing with half a million dollars set aside for retirement. And he was a rather successful person who built a very nice career with a major corporation, so not some lazy slacker who didn't care about anything. Actually, given the time he was a corporate employee of McDonalds I'm now wondering why he doesn't have a pension. McDonalds must have had a corporate pension plan in the 70s.
posted by COD at 10:07 AM on October 6 [1 favorite]


I think it takes a certain kind of person to actually think this sounds good. Personally, I like jobs with a lot of physical activity - it's like getting paid to exercise. I've done similar work, and frankly, this appeals to me. Travel and exercise is how I want to spend my retirement anyway, with some time left over for art.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:25 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


> [...] i am kind of tired of seeing people sunday morning quarterback about people doing money stuff when most people are a) never taught how to invest their money b) are trying to do it in a fucking predatory environment

I think if you reread most anything anyone has written that seems critical or gets into the financial, you will see they are fact based observations, not condemnations. The numbers aren't exactly adding up.

We live in a culture that allows people to make devastating financial mistakes. We give them more student loans than they can possibly pay off in any sort of reasonable amount of time. We let them do 100% financing on homes they have little hope of retaining. We encourage people to "invest" in cars well beyond their means, and to even finance them over the period of seven years. We extend credit cards and you can get a charge card at just about any chain store.

Like this man, I grew up poor. I stayed poor longer than he did. I've pretty much made every financial mistake one could make. It took me decades to claw out from under my student loans and credit card debt. I know the shame of debt collectors calling me at work. I've had my utilities shut off, and defaulted on my student loans (while working three jobs).

A lot of my financial lessons I learned the hard way. I guess my luck is I learned them before I retired.

People need to start learning this stuff. There is really no excuse, since the alternative is working in your retirement for subservient wages.

People today aren't getting pensions. Educations is way more expensive. The most common method of getting into the middle class is getting further out of reach (home ownership). Healthcare costs are a higher percentage of income, income has been stagnant for like four decades, and a 40 hour minimum wage job can no longer cover rent in most places.

Like I said above, these stories are going to become more common, because most people don't have the advantages this guy had.

If there's any lack of empathy on my part it is because this guy seemed to have it all, clawed his way to the top of the corporate ladder with all the advantages, and somehow managed to piss it all away, lost more than many people will make in their lifetime. I do feel for the guy; There but for the grace of god, and all that, but I don't know what solution there is here.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:41 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


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