Not In Their Prime: Seasonal Employment and Elderly Poverty in Nomadland

Author:  Ria Bhandarkar

The BRB Bottomline

The film Nomadland reveals very real problems concerning how policymakers and corporations exploit seasonal workers, specifically elderly gig economy employees. Although temporary employment may be attractive for companies such as Amazon, policy that targets a reduction in elderly poverty would help prevent aging Americans from converting to a tumultuous nomadic lifestyle, where they face low salaries and poor treatment.

Nomadland, a film directed by naturalistic filmmaker Chloé Zhao, was released on Hulu in 2021 and immediately became a critical darling. Cinephiles praised its loose structure and documentary-like depiction of Midwestern “nomads:” eldery individuals who travel the country searching for work. The fact that the movie came out during a global pandemic and recession only further helped it resonate with viewers who were going through their own economic and personal struggles. 

The film follows Fern, a senior citizen who loses her job at a manufacturing plant in Empire, Nevada. Determined to continue working, especially after her husband’s death leaves her without any ties to her hometown, Fern decides to embrace a nomadic lifestyle: living in a van and relying on odd jobs in small towns. Throughout her journey, Fern meets other nomads, played primarily by non-career actors, who help her process grief and accept the next stage of her life.

At first glance, the film isn’t inherently political, nor is it especially critical of the structures Fern in which exists. But careful viewers will notice one subtly implied villain whose presence lurks throughout the film: Amazon. Many of the nomads are people who’ve lost work due to Amazon’s seasonal hiring practices, mainly through a program called CamperForce. While the film paints their lifestyles as a bold and unconventional choice, there is a real economic reason for CamperForce’s existence and promotion by companies like Amazon.

While Nomadland has still been heavily praised by the media, more and more journalists are coming out of the woodwork questioning why the screenplay removes major passages from its source material, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. While Amazon boxes aren’t much more than an Easter egg in the film, Bruder’s book details injuries and poor working conditions for Amazon employees participating in the CamperForce program. Zhao’s film seems more intrigued by the workers’ travels, while Bruder interrogates the realities of their work lives and conditions.

Nomadland’s cinematic and lyrical storytelling inspires viewers and its “show don’t tell” approach may encourage more conversation about society’s treatment of the elderly and underemployed. However, there is more tragedy and confusion under the surface of these characters’ lives than the film attempts to address. From an economic and policy perspective, the film also represents a call to action.

Who Are the Nomads?

Nomadism is a large cultural trend, far beyond the scope of a character study such as the film. Plenty of nomads, many of them current Amazon employees, have reached out to the media to tell their stories. Although their experiences are diverse, their reliance on the will of large corporations is a recurring theme.

The Impact of CamperForce

Amazon’s CamperForce is a seasonal working program made up of a large group of RVers. Nomads move between different “fulfillment centers,” what Amazon calls their warehouses, to complete tasks based on need. CamperForce is especially useful to Amazon during their peak season, such as the holiday rush, where they are expected to work ten or more hours a day.

In Bruder’s book, the author speaks to people who fell under this group. They included Don Wheeler (an alias), a previously affluent retired software executive who’d adjusted to the nomadic lifestyle after a costly divorce and the 2008 recession. As someone nearing his seventies, he was working over sixty hours a week in manual labor for Amazon.

“Mostly retired now, [nomads] have added to our repertoire the skills of a lifetime in business. We can help run your shop, handle the front or back of the house, drive your trucks and forklifts, pick and pack your goods for shipment, fix your machines, coddle your computers and networks, work your beet harvest, landscape your grounds or clean your bathrooms.,” Wheeler said in a conversation with Bruder.

The connection between the difficulties of retiring and the uncertainties of an economy in recession are both closely tied to the rise in nomadism. Bruder cites the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality which rates America as the most unequal developed nation, as evidence of this bad economic situation. Many of these elderly “workampers” haven’t experienced a substantial increase in the minimum wage since they first entered the workforce. She argues that the economy was built so that those close to retirement have a harder time catching up to their more wealthy peers than they would have in previous generations. If someone works minimum wage jobs for their entire career, achieving the quality of life they’d hope to have when retired takes longer when their pay means less.

A Youthful Exception

While many have dubbed CamperForce an “elderly army,” there are still plenty of younger workers who’ve sought out the program. Shay Martinez-Machen, a mother in her early thirties, chose to work for Amazon with her wife due to their fascination with the lifestyle. However, she insists that while she does travel for work several months during the year, she also owns a house, and her children have a stable life. 

Martinez-Machen painted her lifestyle as ideal when interviewed, but the reality of her situation is much more bleak. In 2020, Martinez-Machen launched a GoFundMe page, asking for donations to fix her home. She revealed in the GoFundMe description that her choice to become a nomad occurred after she and her wife were laid off from their bankrupt companies in 2016. Since then, they have been on the brink of homelessness and are currently relying on a home provided by a resort in Wisconsin which currently employs them in lieu of CamperForce.

Tin Can Travelers

Martinez-Machen isn’t the only young CamperForce employee hoping to capitalize on the realities of her lifestyle. The Tin Can Travelers is a blog run by husband and wife Hakam Salahuddin and Rebecca Bailey. The couple chose to join CamperForce after feeling trapped in their suburban lifestyle. Their blog promises a peek into their life of freedom and fulfillment since their decision to leave traditional society for the uncertain life of seasonal employment.

But like Martinez-Machen, their work for Amazon goes further as a lifestyle choice. Their blog is covered in advertisements and they have already launched a paid mail service called My RV Mail, to sell to fellow nomads. Although the pair may seem that they are encouraging others to leave the high pressure suburbs behind, in reality they are creating a new market.

Thus, while nomadism is still a largely elderly phenomenon, its spread to middle-aged and younger professionals cannot be ignored. As the economy becomes more and more unequal, there is little incentive for younger people to remain in professions which pay them only slightly more than Campeforce, where they can perform simpler tasks with a lower cost of living. Bruder herself cites the student debt crisis and rising cost of living as reasons why younger populations turn to nomadism.

Amazon’s History of Seasonal Employment

Seasonal hiring, or the practice of employing workers on a temporary basis during periods of high demand, has been a core aspect of Amazon for years. From the company’s perspective, seasonal employment is a perfect coincidence of wants since both parties need something from the other at the same time. On one hand, many young or elderly workers have a difficult time entering or re-entering the workforce during times of economic recession, especially since the economy has become more and more exclusive over time. Meanwhile, Amazon itself has difficulty meeting the extreme demand for goods during certain periods of the year.

If the company needs workers but can’t keep them year round, and there is a large number of people willing to work on a temporary basis, what is unethical about CamperForce? Nomadland may demonstrate the eagerness of people to live as nomads but not necessarily the imbalance of power they face when their income is heavily reliant on the behemoth corporation that is Amazon.

The Holiday Rush

In 2020, Amazon hired 100,000 seasonal employees. While this number may seem reasonable to meet Amazon’s high demand, not all of these temporary workers were treated equally during the pandemic. At the same time, the company promised to convert some of its temporary employees to full-time. Being a full-time employee could promise vacation days, paid overtime, and health insurance.

Not all of these new temporary employees were good-natured CamperForce workers. The new temporary workers hired during the pandemic made up at least 10% of the total workforce for Amazon. That means that before the holidays, Amazon chose to take on more part-time workers instead of providing full benefits to a large fraction of its current employees. 

In fact, it’s been an open secret for years that Amazon holiday employees were unlikely to have job prospects after they completed their contracts. Many of these seasonal workers aren’t even contacted again. Although the nomadic lifestyle may seem tempting, workers could soon be reminded that they are at the mercy of Amazon’s hiring decisions. Seasonal workers aren’t necessarily called back every year; many times, they have to reapply and hope nothing prevents their hiring.

That isn’t to say that the program is without its benefits. Plenty of employees enjoy being able to work enough for part of the year to live freely the rest. Yet, employees still get paid less than full time workers, so the lifestyle isn’t completely accessible to those who may require a higher income to support their families.

Prime Day

Amazon is also more likely to hire nomads during Prime Day, when the website has its highest number of deals and consequently, faces its largest demand. Still, Prime Day is generally the time when Amazon’s poor worker treatment comes to a head. Multiple temporary workers have engaged in protests while working on Prime Day. However, fewer temporary workers walk out in comparison to their full time counterparts. 

Although one of the most common demands in Amazon worker protests is to convert more part-time employees to permanent workers, it isn’t difficult to believe that Amazon takes on more temporary employees as a way to lower the chance of larger strikes. It is generally understood that seasonal workers don’t receive full benefits, making it difficult to join negotiations. It’s easier to be less accountable if the company isn’t as responsible for workers’ well being. Some temporary workers have even been fired without full explanation after participating in walk-outs, with some warehouses even letting 10% of their workforce go.. 

The Downfalls of Temporary Hiring

While Nomadland’s frames seasonal employment as an active choice its protagonist makes, the very ability to travel between locations for work is a consequence of the current economy. Many American students can recall images of traveling workers during the Great Depression, who went across the country doing odd jobs for spare change, many sponsored by governmental programs such as the Work Progress Administration. Since the Great Depression, temporary employment has served as a buffer during recessions. For example, after the 2008 crisis, temporary employment spiked far beyond pre-recession levels.

All of the case examples of nomads in the film, which are based on the life experiences of real nomads, and Bruder’s book, support this idea. Most Americans don’t turn to temporary employment without being hit by unemployment first. Many nomads that Bruder interviewed revealed that they chose this lifestyle after unemployment benefits ran out.

Ebbs and Flows

As a matter of fact, it could be argued that increases in seasonal employment directly relates to the boom and bust of an economic system. Temporary workers cost less to train and don’t require the same benefits that full-time workers do. As a result, they are the perfect investment during a time when companies hope to spend less on labor costs.

While a recession does make companies more selective about which employees they take on, temporary workers can serve as an adjustment as a company seeks to grow during an uncertain period. And companies that are less responsive to the business cycle tend to take on more part-time employees anyways, so the labor supply increases in their specific market, encouraging more hiring. Amazon is a great example of this phenomenon; the company boomed during the pandemic.

That alone is why many economists don’t believe in the unemployment rate as a statistic to measure economic health. Unemployment rates don’t take underemployment, or part-time work, into account so struggling nomads are not considered unemployed. Since nomadism is becoming more popular, that loophole may make it more difficult to correlate unemployment, not underemployment, with economic recession.

Long Run Impacts

Since temporary work tends to correlate with economic recovery, it may continue to expand in the near future, as more industries open up after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, its benefits aren’t evenly distributed. For consumers, prices may decrease and living standards will increase. That on its own may be enough of a reason for the government to encourage temporary programs.

From an economic perspective, seasonal employment is critical to meet demand. There’s a reason why Amazon tends to hire more temporary employees during holidays, as do many chain stores. Seasonal employees help fill in the gap in labor during times of high demand and any other solution is unlikely to work in the same way.

Nevertheless, workers themselves often struggle due to the lack of benefits and steady employment. Meanwhile, even companies can face high insurance costs and difficulties finding high quality workers without dealing with constant turnover. Seasonal workers may have less luck finding work during times of economic prosperity if hiring them is a liability.

A Plight of the Elderly

Another revelation in Nomadland is the extent to which elderly poverty has decreased the likelihood of Americans retiring at the ideal age. The release of the book in 2017 prompted journalists to take a closer look into the daily lives of working class seniors. Elderly nomads aren’t working to keep busy. Many of them have lost substantial amounts of their savings and can’t continue to live without a steady income. Is this a phenomenon a consequence of the general social attitude towards the elderly or our disjointed economy?

More and more older Americans no longer see retirement as a logical possibility. About one-third of 45 to 65 year-olds plan on working at least part-time in their old age, with 4 percent expecting to find full-time work. A sizable portion of middle-aged workers don’t see themselves stopping work at the traditional age of 65. 

Companies such as Amazon are quick to identify that need for senior-aged labor. Companies get tax breaks for employing the elderly, benefits which can be nearly half of the total wages paid. These policies have been proven to delay workforce exits among those over 65. CamperForce is getting more and more applications from elderly workers each year, with no signs of stopping during the recession, when elderly people have been at high risk.

Poverty rates among elderly populations tend to be worse as the age groups get older. Approximately 11.6 percent  of those over 80 are in poverty. These rates have been steadily decreasing, though are still higher than the national average and these numbers are significantly worse for elderly immigrants and people of color. Although the majority of nomads are white, women and those in rural areas are more likely to experience poverty in their old age. 

How We Solve Them

Plenty of economists have proposed solutions to aid elderly people in poverty and increase retirement rates. One popular solution is implementing pensions, which is usually a monthly payment covered by  former employers or state-sponsored programs like US Social Security. As debates over the minimum wage increase, it is possible that minimum pensions could become a buzz term as well. Increasing the minimum wage to the economist-suggested $15 would also correlate with an increase in annual Social Security payments by $5000. Some economists estimate that increasing Social Security by $1000 would decrease elderly poverty by 2 to 3 percent.

Besides increasing benefits, Social Security could also be altered to take into account demographic shifts. Widows are at a great risk of poverty in later life, so increasing funds for newly one-person households would also keep more nomads from converting to make ends meet.

Among populations in poverty, the elderly are often left out in policy discussions, even though their likelihood of ending up in a bad economic situation increases with age. Nomadland shows elderly nomads as people with agency in how they spend their final years. While that may be true to an extent, the fact remains that it is becoming harder and harder to retire at the culturally expected age. With Amazon proving to care little about its elderly employees, it is important that those in power provide them with some assistance. No matter what experience these nomads have in their chosen lifestyle, they shouldn’t be in it because they were forced to be.

Take-Home Points

  • Nomadland is a very personal character study which details the struggles of elderly Americans facing unique economic struggles. The film encourages discussion about overlooked consequences of the current economic structure.
  • Seasonal employment correlates with economic recession and encourages power imbalances between employers and employees. Even seasonal workers who promote their lifestyles have an economic incentive to do so.
  • In the end, nomadism has expanded as elderly poverty levels have risen. Encouraging major changes in Social Security benefits could have major effects on America’s aging populations.

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