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The pandemic has spurred surges in camping and RV travel due to the need for social distancing and outdoor activity. But it’s not all fun and vacations: one group of Americans adopted a self-sufficient and nomadic lifestyle long ago, living full-time in motor homes and working seasonal jobs to support themselves as they travel the United States. Paul Solman reports on retirement-age “workampers.”
The pandemic has spurred a surge in camping and R.V. travel, as social distancing has become one of the catchphrases of COVID-19.
But it's not all fun and vacations. One group of Americans has long since adopted a self-sufficient lifestyle, living full-time in motor homes and working seasonal jobs to support themselves.
Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has the story.
It's part of our Making Sense series Unfinished Business. And a note: Some of this story was shot before the pandemic began.
This is the couch that turns into a bed.
To Darla McLain, 64, and husband Bill, also 64, a former biker and hell-raiser, this is home sweet home.
Our whole bedroom is done all in Levi's. These are all my old pants.
The McLains have been living in an R.V. since 2010, after the Great Recession sank their L.A. motorcycle repair shop and their home.
We had a $700,000 house that we owed about $200,000 on that sold for $131,000.
On the auction block.
Broke, the McLains sold what was left and hit the road.
It was that or rent an apartment and get jobs locally. But there were no jobs.
So, they drove to where the work was.
Our first job was Amazon in Coffeyville, Kansas.
A two-month stint in the warehouse, holiday rush.
It was pretty rough. They expect certain numbers, and you have to hustle.
He blew his knee out.
I don't normally walk at 60 miles an hour pushing a heavy cart going around 90-degree turns.
Amazon was the first of some 20 seasonal gigs. When we first met them last fall, the McLains were parked across from a Las Vegas Ikea to peddle pumpkins and then Christmas trees.
With us, we have what we call wheel estate. We just we just take the covers off, lift the levelers, fire it up, and we go where the economy is good.
Tens of thousands of retirement-age Americans are migrant laborers, or workampers, driven by economic necessity and wanderlust.
This is Judy Arnold's fourth year workamping. She's been tending a store in Yellowstone National Park since June.
It wasn't very busy at first, but, as time went on, it got busier and busier, until we have more people now than we have had in regular seasons.
People are just tired of being cooped up at home, and they thought, let's go to the parks.
More sightseers, drawn away from COVID and back to nature, means a lot more work for a workamper like Arnold.
I'm doing the work of three people right now.
The pandemic has driven an awful lot of Americans onto the road, but the number of mobile-living, gig-hopping workampers has been growing for years.
Every January, hordes convene in Quartzsite, Arizona, the site of an annual R.V. show. That's where we met 66-year-old Susan Otteros.
You end up in these really neat places, like Yosemite.
Otteros works as a camp host. Main tasks? Checking in campers and, if you're up for it, cleaning.
I don't do the bathrooms.
My boyfriend does the bathrooms. I collect the money.
Mitch Craighead drafts camp hosts for Thousand Trails campsites.
How many 75-year-olds do you recruit?
More than you would expect. Baby boomers are retiring. The pool of workers that we're hiring for is growing dramatically.
That was in January. The company declined to give us specifics, but Mitchell says campgrounds are busier than these days.
We have always looked at ourselves in the camping industry as the original social distancing. And a lot of our new customers are telling us just that.
We have seen a significant spike in reservations for the remainder of the camping year this year.
At the R.V. show, workamping veterans Rick and Tammie Wommack moved into their motor home nine years ago, after their son died by suicide.
We started out with what we call our Journey for Joshua, which was to honor our son.
But the reality after that three years was, it's expensive to live on the road. You need new tires. Maintenance costs are high.
And big campers get just seven miles a gallon. So, for the past seven years, they have worked the North Dakota sugar beet harvest.
I didn't even know what a sugar beet was. I thought sugar came from sugarcane, because where I come from, it does, you know, Dixie Crystal.
But, instead, 55 percent of our sugar comes from sugar beets, instead of sugarcane, in the country.
Muddy 12-hour shifts at $14 an hour, plus overtime, until the beets run out.
Some nomad gigs pay a lot more than that.
Ms. J. transports R.V.s from manufacturer to dealer, and sees the country.
I can pick the jobs I want to take to go see various destinations. So, if there's an R.V. that needs to go to Florida, which I have done this, delivered in Miami, I went on over to Key West
And how much do you get paid for that?
I would say somewhere between $60,000 and $75,000.
That's $60,000 to $75,000 a year, driving four days a week.
These days, R.V.s are selling like hot cakes, but Ms. J. is sitting out the pandemic in a tiny house in Georgia until next year.
The cases are up, especially for certain communities, communities of color.
And I'm — I know quite a few of people who have been affected. And so I just kind of choose to lay low until things kind of simmer down a little bit.
Can you afford to?
I have been doing this pattern over a number of years, where I was able to financially prepare myself for the what-ifs. And this is one of those what-ifs.
Back in January, in the big tent, there were hawkers of tire pressure monitors, R.V. window-cleaners, orthotics.
We reconnected with Bill and Darla McLain, who'd driven here from Mexico, where they go for affordable health care.
Shrimp tacos are killer.
We have a great pharmacist down there. We get glasses and our teeth worked on. I don't know why — how they can charge so much for stuff here that you can go right down there and get the same thing for a fraction of the price.
But the McLains were at the R.V. show for a gig, to sign up other workampers as oil field gate guards.
You have to man the gate 24 hours a day. They pay $150 a day for that.
Now, look, workamping obviously isn't for everyone.
Does this interest you?
No, not at all.
And why is that?
Because I retired for a reason. I don't want to go back to work.
But Bill and Sandy Collins liked what they heard. They workamp, helping fund their wanderings.
We work Adventureland. Then we go to J.C. Penney and then…
Working in the warehouse at J.C. Penney's.
Even in bankruptcy, J.C. Penney's warehouse is still running. And as, at Amazon, you have to step lively.
On Thursday, I walked 23,355 steps.
According to 72-year-old Bill's smartphone, that is.
And as long as I keep doing it, then I think my health is going to stay a lot better than I would if I sat down.
That's one of the appeals of workamping to George Stoutenburgh.
I can't see myself stopping work. I can't do nothing. What is nothing? You sit around and, what, wait to die? That's not me.
But he also needs the money.
It's not like we're broke, but we're certainly not millionaires. We can't afford to just travel the world and do whatever we want to do. That would be a wonderful thing, but it's not my life.
Judy Arnold's current Yellowstone gig has kept her more than busy, but, when it ends in October, she isn't sure what she will do.
There's a huge population of us that are still in limbo, wondering if there is a next job to go to. And a lot of my co-workers, where they normally go, the places aren't open. So, I'm definitely worried, because I definitely need an income.
As for Bill and Darla McLain, they have been parked outside their daughter's house in Arkansas for several months, making repairs to the R.V.
I think, for the most part, we have been surviving and trying to get through this, like most people are. It is a little weird for R.V.ers. I know that for a fact. It's not the easiest thing in the world to find a place.
It's not really that we can't travel. It's just once you get where you're going…
Where do you stay?
But, this weekend, they're getting back on the road, headed to a new job, working and hoping to find places to camp.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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