We spent the last part of 2009 trying out workamping at Amazon.com’s fullfillment center in Coffeyville, Kansas. We finally have enough of the details brought together to share our assessment about the financial rewards, hours involved and challenges.
As we generally earn our income doing various technical & marketing consulting, both remotely online and onsite, we thought it would be interesting to check out a different way of earning an income while traveling. We even got featured on Gizmodo about our experience.
Workamping is an awesome concept that matches up businesses that need temporary workers, and RVing travelers who would like to earn a little bit of income, or have some of their living expenses paid for. Workamping opportunities range from hosting a campground to temporary work with wages.
When we did this gig, Express Employment Professionals in Independence, Kansas was working with Amazon to bring in workampers to help out with their holiday rush of shipping. Now Amazon has formalized this workamping program and calls it Camperforce. You can find out more and apply directly at that link.
The Hours and Pay
We worked the night shift (5p – 5:30a) – so our wage in Kansas was $11/hr and $16.50 for any hours worked in a week over 40. They also offered a bonus in the last week of $100 to anyone who completed their mandatory 55 hours.
Here are the hours we worked during our four weeks there, and our gross income for the month:
Not bad, together we grossed $5,354 – with our low living expenses, the income is still funding us, and will well into March. (If you’re reading this in e-mail or RSS, view the full post to see the embedded weekly breakout.)
In addition, they paid for our camping spot. We selected Elks City State Park in Independence, which afforded us a scenic and secluded spot, and cost Amazon about $470 to park us for our time there. Some people consider this additional compensation as they would have been paying for camping anyway, but as we generally only pay for camping about 20-30% of the time, we more looked at it as one less cost of employment.
Costs we incurred to take on the gig included:
- A 40 mile a day commute, that cost us about $126 in gas for the duration.
- Needing to buy supportive shoes and insoles for all the walking and standing.
- Buying some extra shirts and underwear in the last couple weeks, because we were lacking time to get to the laundrymat.
- A big bottle of Advil.
If we were to do it over again – we may have opted for one of the very crowded and muddy, but only 5 miles away, campgrounds in Coffeyville. Especially post-Thanksgiving, when time off became a thing of the past.
The massive overtime hours only occurred starting on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving). Up until that time, workampers were only assigned four – 10 hour shifts a week, and were frequently being let go early, thus reducing their potential income. Amazon hires on workampers starting in late August. This can be a good arrangement, as you earn up to $440 a week working only 4 days, having 3 days to yourself – while having your camping paid for. A good number of workampers who had been working those hours quit once the overtime kicked in. For us.. we were there specifically to experience the mad holiday rush, and rack up the OT.
We started our gig the week of Thanksgiving (November 22), and our first week was capped at 40 hours. Immediately following Thanksgiving, everyone was on ‘scheduled’ overtime of five – 11 hour shifts a week. Scheduled overtime means, it’s mandatory – and you will start racking up ‘points’ if you miss a shift. Accumulate enough points, and you’ll be let go. The last two weeks of our time there, they offered an additional optional 5 hours a week of overtime (which you could choose to work as a half shift, or adding an hour to your shift.). We coordinated with our managers to work four – 12 hours days and two – 6 hour days – as that left us more daytime hours to be available to our ‘real’ work clients.
During each shift, you are given two paid 15 minute breaks, and forced to take an unpaid 30 minute meal break.
I include this not to complain, or gain sympathy – but rather to prepare anyone considering this gig in future years to be fully aware of what you’re getting into.
Especially once the mandatory overtime kicked in, we felt like our time was owned by Amazon. For the few waking hours we weren’t working, we were trying to stretch our muscles, shop/preparing food for our lunch break or commuting. Amazon frequently didn’t give much notice that you had been assigned an extra shift on your regular off day. This made It tough to cram in our normal non-Amazon work obligations.
Your lunch break is 30 minutes long – but there’s no time to leave the Amazon campus, you spend at least 7 minutes of it walking to/from a time clock/your station/a break room, and you must be at your stand up station precisely at the end of the break after clocking back in. This essentially means your actual lunch time is not even 20 minutes, and is spent in one of their break rooms. You also needed to arrive to the parking lot at least 15 minutes before your shift (uncompensated) to clock in and make it to your station in time. On the flipside, there didn’t seem to be any problem with leaving your station a couple minutes early to clock out at the end of your shift.
Once you escape a typical corporate job you tend to value time differently when working for others. I look at not just my time on the job – but any time that I’m not spending doing what I want to be doing. And those hours aren’t compensated. I feel each work day cost me an uncompensated minimum of 2 hrs a day (lunch, commute, early arrival, etc). Which essentially means, even with OT pay, our gross pay rate was averaged out at $11/hr.
The work is very physically demanding. Chris and I both are in pretty good shape, and there were days we’d come home in tears of pain.. and we were assigned to what is considered the ‘easy’ job – Sortable Singles (packing single order items into single boxes.) The first week or so, we were both living on Advil to keep swelling down. I ended up in Amazon’s ‘Amcare’ Center once for extreme pain in my wrist and arms due to swelling and abrasion from the boxes. I had to call in sick one day simply because my feet were too swollen to fit in my shoes. Some of the positions required 15-20 miles a day of walking. We were some of the younger workampers there, most of a more traditional retirement age – I’ve gained new hope that in 30 years I may still have the energy to take on a gig like this again.
But, once we acclimated to the physical challenges of lifting, squatting, walking and packing 12-hrs a day, it became much easier for us. And even fun! And asking for a couple 1/2 days definitely helped break things up for us.
The other complication is that Kansas has state income tax, which was withheld from our paychecks. Filing an income tax return in Kansas is mandatory, however they don’t make it easy for once-in-a-lifetime non-resident earners to file. Right now, we’ll have to wait about 6 weeks for the forms to reach us, and then they’re anticipating 12-16 weeks to process them manually. We could efile using a tax service – but most don’t handle non-resident state income earnings, and those that do – require you re-entering in your entire federal return (which for us, is most complicated). Most annoying, and a lot of hassle for about $200 due in refunds to us.
Even despite the challenges mentioned above, we both definitely consider our time workamping at Amazon to be totally worthwhile… as a new experience.
Our managers in our department were awesome – very accommodating, friendly, appreciative of us and ‘got’ that full time RVers are not their typical workforce. The folks at Express were awesome too, and we had someone from their office visit our station every shift to check in and make sure things were ok. Amazon takes safety seriously, and we felt that our physical safety was a priority for them. We were given cool t-shirts commemorating ‘surviving’ the peak season, and Amazon did provide meals a few times.
I actually made the following post to my personal journal towards the end:
How much would you pay to:
– Have a physical training coach for 60 hours a week, who whips you into shape with squats, miles of walking, weight training, stretching and more?
– Have your fingers literally on the pulse of consumer trends in your industry ?
– Have access to figuring out the operations of what makes one of the world’s most successful companies tick?
– Get your mind into a month-long zen state of meditation by doing receptive tasks, and feel grounded to take on the world?
This sort of hands on transformational coaching and experience is worth thousands.
But act now.. and you’ll not only get all this for FREE.. you’ll be paid to have it!
We truly were fascinated by being a cog in this huge machine. We learned so much about consumer culture, big distribution centers and got to interact with many locals in Kansas who were grateful for their employment at Amazon. We got to pick the brains of a lot of full time RVers about the workamping lifestyle. And we each lost a few pounds and came away better toned.
Now, will you see us working there again? Unless circumstances lined up perfectly and we had nothing else going on – probably not. We’re experience junkies, and did it to try something neither of us had done before. It wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to do again.. and if we did, we’d make sure we got a different position. And we’re unsure of how the new dynamic would be without Express Pro involved.
Other posts we made about our Amazon.com experience:
- Adjusting to the Night Shift – Working Vampire hours
- Inside Amazon’s Coffeyville Warehouse – More information about the actual work we were doing
- Digital Fasting – Not being able to bring cell phones into Amazon, had us disconnected for a month.
- Secret Lives of Amazon’s Elves – Our feature on Gizmodo