EAST GRAND FORKS, MINN. – Dusk settled over the campground by the Red River, and inside her spacious motor home, 64-year-old Theresa Delikat was just waking up.
It was time to have dinner with her husband, Tom, back from driving a truck in the frenzied sugar beet harvest here; time to get ready for her own midnight shift at a sugar beet testing lab. After eight straight days of this, the retired couple were exhausted.
“This overnight shift, it’s kicking my butt,” said Theresa, who rubbed her tired face and then grinned. “But it’s a challenge. … You can’t get too soft.”
The Delikats, both retired nurses, are now part of a growing national wave of new migrant workers: retirees who pick up temporary, seasonal jobs around the country doing everything from helping with the fast-paced sugar beet harvest on this flat prairie to selling pumpkins in Arizona to filling holiday orders in warehouses for Amazon.com.
These modern-day vagabonds, who travel in RVs, call themselves work campers. They are becoming a workforce that Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar Company is relying on more heavily as the North Dakota oil boom lures workers away from the Red River Valley.
The company hired about 60 work campers in 2007; this year, that tally soared to 475 — about a third of their added harvest workforce — hailing from 28 states. They expect the number to grow again next year.
“The whole work camper thing has really kind of blossomed in the last few years,” said Scott Lindgren, managing partner at Express Employment Professionals, which finds and vets RV workers for the sugar company. While Lindgren estimates about 80 percent of their work camper hires are retirees choosing to work to support their traveling lifestyles, others need the money to survive. Lindgren said he’s seen the average age decrease over time, with more in their 40s and 50s.
It’s happening amid high anxiety about retirement and falling pension coverage: 65 percent of non-retired baby boomers have little confidence that they will have the means to live comfortably in retirement, according to an AARP survey. The percentage of workers covered by a traditional pension plan has been steadily declining. Meanwhile, 31 percent of Americans have no retirement savings, the state Department of Commerce says.
In Minnesota and North Dakota, RVers have become a “critical component” to the sugar beet region, which has a $5 billion annual economic impact, said Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of agriculture at American Crystal.
‘Traveling is expensive’
Retiree Sally Stanton, 56, had never heard of a sugar beet before arriving in the Red River Valley with her husband last fall.
After earning nearly $6,000 last year, the couple from Abilene, Texas, came back this fall. Working the intense harvest is fun for a few weeks, the Stantons said. Then they can relax a bit, with a few extra thousand dollars in the bank.
“It’s really not hard work,” said Gary Stanton, 61, a retired prison captain who wore a mud-spattered neon green vest to drive heavy equipment at a beet piling site near tiny Oslo, Minn.
“It’s just the long hours that are rough on old people,” laughed Sally, who spent her days at the drive-up window of a scale house greeting and registering a stream of trucks weighing their beet loads.
The Stantons wanted to see the country, so a couple of years ago they paid $139,000 for a used 42-foot Damon Tuscany motor home. With three flat-screen televisions, a kitchen with a convection oven, a washer and dryer and Internet access, they have everything they need to live comfortably, they said. But once they hit the open road, the gas and camping fees started to add up.
“We found out real quick that traveling is expensive,” Sally said as she sat on her plush camper couch with a glass of white wine, a macaroni and cheese casserole underway in the kitchen.
To help offset travel costs, the couple have filled orders at an Amazon.com warehouse in Kansas, taken reservations at a Branson, Mo., campground and performed odd volunteer jobs at an Army Corps of Engineers office in Georgia. They work out of their camper more than six months of the year, they said, sometimes for an hourly wage, sometimes for a free place to park. In between, they sightsee and visit family.
They and two couples who followed them to East Grand Forks plan to use their sugar beet money to pay for fuel to get to Alaska next summer, where they all hope to find other work camping jobs.
Dollywood to Amazon
The jobs aren’t hard to find. Retirees hear about them at campgrounds. They see them on Facebook. Jobs are listed on work camping websites. Some employers set up recruiting booths at RV shows.
Workamper magazine sends out daily e-mails to subscribers looking for jobs. In an unscientific poll taken on a Workampers Facebook page, 93 out of 105 respondents said they were working because they wanted to, not because they needed to.
Work campers do everything from guarding oil fields to setting up Christmas lights to taking tickets at amusement parks. Most advertisements, though, are for volunteer positions at campgrounds offering a free space in exchange for serving as hosts. Few of the jobs include benefits.
At the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show in Arizona, President Kenny King said he’s seen the exhibitor list of work camping recruiters approximately double in the last five to 10 years, to about 25.
At Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee, work campers run rides and serve food.
Mary Fulton, a work camper-turned-full-time Dollywood employee, said the economy has played a role.
“A lot of people that thought ‘We’re going to retire and sit in an RV and camp’ have decided that ‘we need a little more income,’ ” Fulton said.
Lindgren, of Express Employment, said he recruited at RV shows in Florida and Arizona in January. Beginning workers at American Crystal made just over $12 an hour plus overtime. Those experienced in driving equipment and managing people earned $17 to $18 an hour as foremen. Depending upon the weather, an RV worker could earn $2,000 to $5,000 in a month or less.
Amazon.com expanded its CamperForce program this year by adding a fourth location. A company official said Amazon hires “hundreds” of work campers each holiday season, though they declined to give specific numbers.
Work campers say they like the control that temporary jobs afford: If they don’t like their boss or the work, they can either stick it out for the short term or go find something else.
Theresa Delikat said many retired workers she’s come across view the jobs as a mental challenge and test of their physical abilities. “They want to feel useful again,” she said.
Retired chemistry instructor Helmut Koch and his wife set out in an RV from their home in Bangor, Maine. They saw the recruiters for American Crystal at an RV show in Florida and decided to sign up.
“You’ve gotta keep active,” Helmut Koch said.
“It sounded like an adventure,” added his wife, 59-year-old Mairead Stein-Koch, a retired nurse practitioner, as she packed tuna sandwiches for their dinner break.
The two hope to see all of the country’s national parks, so they drove their 30-foot Concord Coachmen to Yellowstone and Badlands national parks before arriving for the sugar beet harvest.
For 10½-hour days, the couple alternated standing and sitting at factory-style lab stations, safety glasses perched on their noses, ear plugs muffling the constant whirring, creaking and whooshing of chemicals and industrial machines.
Koch scraped ground-up sugar beet from a machine into a silver cup to grind it down further; Stein-Koch scooped beet paste into a machine to mix it with aluminum sulfate to measure the sugar content in sampled beets from a harvest that would eventually be turned into granulated sugar.
The work could get tedious, they said, but the company tried to make it fun, rotating the stations and handing out noisemakers to celebrate groups processing 1,000 samples in a shift. They also met like-minded retirees working and camping alongside them.
“We love it,” Stein-Koch said of life in an RV. “I never want to do anything else.”
Some work campers need the jobs more than others.
Tough times have accounted for some of the rise in the RV workforce, said Lindgren, the recruiter: “Some of it’s obviously due to the economy and people not being able to retire the way they once thought.”
Not all work campers are older. Some groups of 20- and 30-somethings, more apt to call themselves “travelers,” rove to work and bunk in pop-up campers or tents. Some families work camp and home-school their kids.
Some RV workers were forced to try something new well before hitting retirement age. David Knapp, 52, once made $64,000 in the aerospace industry in northern Illinois, he said, but after he was laid off he had an epiphany.
“I’ve discovered that sitting in a cubicle is nothing but clock-watching,” he said while he and his beagle, Stella, met their temporary neighbors on the vast lawns of the campground here before his night shift.
He and his wife sold their house and bought an RV in 2008. They’ve worked at a Florida resort and an Iowa amusement park. They’ve acted as campground hosts at 10,000 feet in Colorado. He has worked night security and maintenance.
The Knapps, who now use a $45,000 agile truck camper, try to line up work six months in advance, he said. They take time off to spend with family. He also is trying to grow his own small business selling Critical Eye blacklight flashlights on Amazon.com.
As he ambled through the campground, Knapp said he didn’t choose to forgo his professional job. Now, though, he couldn’t imagine wearing ties and sitting at a desk.
“I don’t know if you could get me back into a regular office,” he said. He rubbed his bristly chin and smiled: “You don’t always have to shave every day. Now that’s freedom.”