In a must-read article in the current issue of Harper's magazine, journalist Jessica Bruder, adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, adds a new phrase to America's vocabulary: "Elderly migrant worker." She documents a growing trend of older Americans for whom the reality of unaffordable housing and scarcity of work has driven them from their homes and onto the road in search of seasonal and temporary employment across the country. Packed into RVs, detached from their communities, these "Okies" of the Great Recession put in time at Amazon warehouses, farms and amusement parks, popping free over-the-counter pain reliever to mask the agony of strained muscles and sore backs. And when they can't hold up any longer? The RV sometimes becomes a coffin.
Since the financial crisis ripped the security out from under millions of people, the bulk of our politicians, including President Obama, actually tried to reduce, rather than increase, Social Security. The absence of pensions, along with the inadequacy of 401(k)s, skyrocketing healthcare and job insecurity and unemployment, are sending more and more people scrambling to figure out a way to keep body and soul together. Even grandparents are joining the ranks of those for whom life has become a game of Survivor. In an email interview, I asked Bruder about this alarming trend and what it means for the country, now and in the future.
Lynn Parramore: In your recent article in Harper’s, you describe a trend of downwardly mobile elderly folks traveling the country in RVs in search of temporary and seasonal work. How many people are we talking about? How fast has this trend been emerging?
Jessica Bruder: Though no one keeps an official tally of how many older Americans are doing this kind of work, their ranks appear to be growing rapidly in the wake of the housing bust and market crashes.
Amazon first hired a handful of migrant full-time RVers in 2008 through a program the company later named “CamperForce.” As of 2014, it had expanded to employ some 2,000 workers, according to a recruiter I met in Quartzsite, Arizona. The American Crystal Sugar Company taps the same labor pool each fall to staff its annual sugar beet harvest, and their recruitment numbers are up, too. This year, they’re hoping to recruit 600 "workampers," up from 450 the year before.
LP: What’s the gender breakdown among these traveling workers? What kinds of work are men and women doing?
JB: I was impressed by how many older, single women I met among the working nomads, from a tarot reader living in a former convict labor van she’d transformed into a roving gypsy boudoir, to an ex-medical technician who managed to fit her whole life—along with a Shih-Tzu, a lovebird and a loquacious African Grey parrot—into a 10.5-foot Carson Kalispell sport trailer.
The gender breakdown was roughly even. Employers don’t discriminate when doling out hard or dirty work, whether it’s scrubbing campsite toilets or walking 15 miles a day on a concrete warehouse floor to pack Amazon’s holiday orders.
LP: Amazon’s ads for CamperForce Associates sound so upbeat about the opportunities for older workers: recruiting “flexible and enthusiastic RV’ers with a positive, can-do attitude to join us in our warehouses,” with an emphasis on “fun” stuff like prizes and “community activities.”
What’s the reality of the actual work experience, based on your investigation?
JB: The ads are surreal. They sound like an invitation to summer camp, and not just the ones for Amazon jobs. “Feel like a kid again!” and “Hey workamper, it’s time for fun!” are a couple slogans used by recruiters for Adventureland, a theme park in Altoona, Iowa where migrant workers run the rides, games and concessions for $7.25 to $7.50 an hour. Recruitment materials for the beet harvest, with 12-hour overnight shifts in subzero temperatures, refer to the work as “an unBEETable experience!”
This stuff is propaganda, pure and simple. It panders to the illusion that older Americans are free to retire, working only for fun, rather than acknowledging the reality that many folks need to keep bringing in money to survive.
Much of the work is hard and physically taxing. Several people I met dropped out of the Amazon program after a few weeks because their bodies just couldn’t take it. Others suffered from “trigger finger,” a tendon condition that can be caused by repetitive movements like UPC scanner use. Many RVs I visited looked like mobile apothecaries, stocked with Icy Hot pain-relief gel, foot-soaking tubs with Epsom salts, and bottles of Aleve and Advil.
LP: What kinds of social services are these people able to get when they’re moving around? How do they get Social Security checks, or state-based Medicaid, or Obamacare?
JB: Many traveling workers establish permanent addresses in states like Texas and South Dakota, where residency requirements are lax and taxes are low, so they’re still eligible for many social services and can get their mail forwarded to wherever they’re stationed.
But there are challenges. For example, states often require Medicaid recipients to visit local doctors, which doesn’t work when you’re on the road. And I met folks who simply couldn’t afford to have an extra $100 deducted each month from their social security to get Medicare coverage. Many rely on the cheap medical services they can get in places like Los Algodones, Mexico, known for cut-rate dentists and eye doctors.
LP: What happens to these people when they are too sick to work?
JB: They get by the best they can, relying on each other or their families. I met a lot of parents and grandparents who hated the idea of leaning on the next generation, but would do it in an emergency. For some, there’s no good answer to this question. I heard a couple harrowing stories of older migrants who died in their RVs.
LP: What does this trend reveal about the changing nature of work in America, and the direction in which many of us are headed?
The social contract is falling apart. With the death of pensions and the increase of short-term, temporary jobs bearing no benefits, we’re moving toward a winner-take-all economy with no safety net to help people weather hard times.