in The State We're In, Things we do, Work Camping

Work camping for Amazon, Part II: Whooooaaaah, we’re halfway there!

Here’s the Halfway Q&A.

I’ve interviewed myself for you. Seemed like a good format for breaking up the text a bit, since I’ve got no photos to accompany this post. We can’t take our phones anywhere in the building other than the one lunch room that’s located outside the security check point, so my camera roll is suffering from neglect.

(To review Part I first, click here.)

Do you like your jobs?

No.

Tell me again what you’re doing there?

The job we chose is picking, meaning we walk all over the cavernous fulfillment center — up to 12 miles/day — pulling items off shelves and out of cardboard bins.

We’re pretty sure that most items we pick are for pending orders, but sometimes we get requests for such large batches of a single item that we suspect we’re just pulling non-sellers off the floor in order to make room for newer merchandise.

We see no customer information whatsoever, so we can’t use that as a clue.

(Note: there are other positions available to Camperforce associates; please keep in mind as you read that I’m speaking only about picking.)

Are you going to quit?

No.

We believe in honoring our commitments. We are not being mistreated, and we do not feel unappreciated. We just don’t enjoy the work, and that’s not a good enough reason for us to bail.

This is a temporary situation, and the end is in sight. We will continue to do our jobs, and to do them well. We are both consistently meeting or exceeding our weekly quotas, and we feel good about that.

So what would you consider “good enough” reasons to quit?

Hmmmm. Accident, injury, serious illness. Family emergency. Unsafe or intolerable working conditions.

Look. We knew going in that these would be tedious, clock-punching, entry level jobs involving repetitive physical motions that might cause stress and/or pain. What we did not know was what it would be like to do that kind of work for 40-60 hours/week. Now we do, and we don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t stick with it.

What are some of the good things that have come out of this so far?

We’ve made new friends.

We’ve learned a lot about our own strengths, and the bonding that’s built by sharing the same work experience with one’s spouse — which is new to us.

We have a deeper appreciation for the hourly blue collar workers of the world, who come home after a physically demanding day to the even further physical stresses of cooking, cleaning, laundry, household repairs, grocery shopping, kids’ school and extracurricular commitments, etc. We thought we had a clue as to what that might be like. We did not.

We’ve also learned a lot about how this one small part of a very complex global corporate operation works. It’s really kind of neat to be an insider, and when we look back on it later, we will harbor no regrets about accomplishing this task. We just probably won’t repeat it.

Is it worth it?

Financially, not so much. As I mentioned in Part I, we took these jobs for the experience, not the income, and we know we are privileged to be able to make that choice.

Without divulging specific numbers, I can tell you that Tim’s military retirement pension pays more per month for him to sit on his ass, than these jobs do for both of us to work our asses off, full time, at $11.50/hour.

However, as part of the Camperforce program, Amazon also pays our campground fees, so we are living rent-free for three months, and that’s a valuable perk! Also, we’ll both be eligible for a completion bonus of $1/hour worked when we’re done.

So what’s it really like to be a picker?

Well, it’s kind of like being a personal shopper. We push carts up and down aisles filled with merchandise, and we get a list, but our list comes to us one item at a time, on the screen of a hand-held bar code scanner. We don’t see the next item until we’ve correctly picked the current one.

The scanner also tells us where to go to get the item, in a numerical code that gives us the specific building section, floor level, row, aisle, shelf, and bin — kind of like going to find a book in a library. But unlike a library, where all the books in section are going to have something in common (topic, author, genre, etc.), merchandise bins are a hot mess.

In a single bin, we might find four cell phone cases, a multipack of toddler socks, two women’s high-lo swing tunics in turquoise, a handbag, a pair of flip flops, a pair of leggings, a set of false eyelashes, 2 boxes of granola bars, an 8-pack of AAA batteries, and a bottle of shampoo. Imagine a Costco filled with kitchen junk drawers. Multiply its size by at least ten. That’s our workplace.

If you’re picturing the final warehouse scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’re in the ballpark. In fact, I hum the theme song in my head fairly often while I work.

And then? Realize that this. never. stops. This process goes on around the clock at this single Amazon fulfillment center, which is but one of many around the globe.

Here. This video will show you.

So are you just in daily, miserable pain?

For the first week or two, yes. Yes, we were. Lots of ibuprofen went down, and we really regretted not having a bath tub to soak in.

We invested in good shoes (Asics gels for me, and a pair of Brooks runners for Tim), so foot pain has not been much of an issue.

However, it took several days to get our forearms and wrists used to holding scanners — which are surprisingly heavy — for several hours at a time. The key for me has been to switch my scanner hand from right to left several times throughout the 10-hour shift.

Most days, we come home with tired legs and sore necks/shoulders. I can usually cure mine with some stretching, and be pain-free and ready to go at it again the next morning. I take ibuprofen only at work, and only if I feel I can’t make it through the rest of my shift without it.

Can you take overtime or time off?

Yes, but we haven’t. We have chosen thus far not to take voluntary overtime or time off, although both have been offered at various points during the 6 weeks we’ve put in so far. For this experience to be worth it to us, we plan to work our guaranteed minimum 40 hours/week; and for it to be bearable for us, we plan to work no more than that unless we have to.

As Christmas approaches, we do expect overtime to become mandatory, and we will of course put in those extra hours as required.

Would you recommend this job to others?

Sure.

Understand that you’ll work hard, that you’ll be on the B-team, that you will have to obey strict rules with regard to scheduling and quotas, that you may not feel like your work has value or meaning — and that it’s temporary.

That said, we do feel valued and appreciated by the management team. They seem genuinely happy to have CamperForce workers onboard to help them through the holiday shopping season, known on the inside as Peak.

And Amazon does offer some onsite niceties that make these jobs easier to handle:

  • Free coffee and cocoa in the break rooms
  • Free feminine hygiene products in the ladies rooms (when you’ve got only a 15-minute break, and your purse is in a locker nearly a quarter mile away, this is really helpful)
  • Water dispensers throughout the warehouse
  • A health center with a small selection of free OTC medicines, and certified EMTs on duty for more serious needs
  • Rows of microwaves and fridges, plus napkins and plasticware in the break rooms
  • Free PPE (personal protection equipment) machines, containing belts, compression sleeves, gloves, utility knives, reflective safety vests, and even ponytail holders
  • Sanitizing hand gel dispensers throughout the building
  • A food truck in the parking lot at lunch time on weekdays
  • And we were able to get free flu shots there too!

What’s the most memorable item you’ve picked?

A red iPhone home button sticker.

Talk about a needle in a haystack! Imagine trying to find that little circle, measuring 3/8” in diameter, in a teensy clear plastic pouch, in your deepest, most chaotic kitchen junk drawer. I’ll wait.

Honorable mentions:

  • gladiator sandals for a toddler
  • a corset in size 5XL
  • a multipack of men’s thongs in XL
  • a box of tissues
  • various ummm… battery operated marital aids
  • a pair of spats
  • a harmonica
  • a 5-lb bag of plain white all-purpose flour
  • and lots and lots of tutus, bras, and underwear

Got more questions? Ask below, and I’ll do my best!


Notes:

This is the “During” installment in what I’ve planed as a trilogy chronicling our 3-month gig with Amazon’s Camperforce. Other chapters quite logically include the “Before” and an upcoming “After.” I’ll link all of them to each other when complete.

For more information, feel free to dig around on the Camperforce web site, and to check out this exposé that appeared on Wired. And if you search Google for “Camperforce,” you’ll also find a lot of personal blogs written by other RV’ers about their experiences. Mine is definitely not the only voice in the chorus!

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    • Thank you for recognizing the struggle for balance that I faced, my friend. This one definitely took many rounds of “think, write, walk away for a few hours, repeat.”

    • Hi Angie! At the center where we applied this year, there were Camperforce positions available in receiving, stowing, picking, packing, and quality control. These offerings may vary by location and the year of application.