Behind the scenes at Amazon CamperForce

lake-arrowhead-state-park

Sunset on Lake Arrowhead State Park near Whichita Falls – our last stop before Alvord, TX

We landed in Alvord, Texas at the A+ RV Park on October 31, and it’s been a whirlwind of activity for us.  After three weeks at Amazon, I’m ready to give first impressions about the place, the company and our home away from home – Alvord.

Jim and I (Jim reluctantly I might add!) signed up last winter to join the Amazon CamperForce for their annual PEAK holiday season in the Fall.  Due to Jim’s mishap in CA this summer with his broken bone, we arrived for the last orientation session on November 2 instead of our planned start date in October.   When we signed up for CamperForce, we intended for it to be our Plan B.  If no other satisfactory workamping position landed in our lap for the Fall/Winter, then at least we had an alternative.  Since we turned down a couple of other offers for very specific reasons, we turned to Plan B!

Grand Opening Of Amazon Fulfillment Center Features State Of The Art Technology

Haslet, Texas fulfillment center

Photo credit:  http://us105fm.com/amazon-building-fourth-fulfillment-center-in-texas/   Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Our brother-in-law, Harry, worked the CamperForce here in Haslet, Texas last year and joined up again this year.   So, we had an idea what we might be getting ourselves into, and went in with both eyes wide open, so to speak.  We are camped in the same RV Park with Harry as well as several other full-time RVer’s engaging in what I affectionately call the *Amazon* marathon.   Since the commute to Haslet from Alvord is one hour from clock in/out to doorstep, it’s great to be able to carpool with others.

Amazon’s website explains the whole CamperForce  program in detail, so I will not focus too much on the generalities of the job.  Feel free to check out their company information page.  Or email me with questions.  A few basics, however:

  1. Amazon hires seasonal workers in their fulfillment centers to process the enormous amount of orders coming in during the holidays. Some of the seasonal workers are garnered from the local population.   Several of their distribution centers, however, are located in areas where the local population is not sufficient enough to fill demand.   At these distribution centers, Amazon came up with a brilliant concept.  Hire full-time RVer’s – or *Workampers*, pay them a fair hourly rate with an end of season completion bonus, and provide them with a free campsite.
  2. Workampers are trained to fill positions in receiving, stowing, picking and inventory control.
  3. Amazon hires workampers as early as the beginning of September and as late as the first of November. So, some flexibility exists as to how long you want to endure the fun!  The season is over just before December 25th.   This year our last day to work is the 23rd.

THE CAMPSITE

First order of business upon arriving in Texas was to get settled into our spot at the A+ RV Park.   I know – if you remember my post from Montana – you will no doubt be asking yourself “Is she out of her mind????   Why is she staying in an RV park, and especially one that has at least 10-12 permanent residents?!”  All I can say is – we had highly reputable recommendations from those who stayed here last year that it was a well-run campground.   This is how it works – Amazon contracts with specific RV parks and campgrounds in the area.   Due to the inadequate supply of campgrounds near the plant, choices are limited.  The other sites were less than desirable, so while not our preference, we could live with it for a couple of months.   I did meet another couple who attended our orientation session who opted to pay for their own site and choose a campground not on Amazon’s list.   So, if you have the means, that’s an alternative.

campsite-at-a-plus-rv-parkOur campsite is a typical RV park site – close neighbors with not much privacy.  However, the distance between sites is a tad better than most I’ve seen, and the sites were planned well with regard to placement of E/W/S hook-ups and private space.  All sites are pull-through and angled, allowing each RV to be slightly staggered from the neighboring rig.   In other words, outside picnic areas are therefore not adjacent to your neighbor’s septic hook-up!!   The sites consist of a hard-packed gravel pad surrounded by grass.

The difference between this RV Park and the one in Whitefish, Montana is the degree of visible management – the campgrounds are polar opposites with regard to on-site oversight and administration.  A+ RV is run by a husband and wife team and they are vigilant in making sure the place is clean and the guests are following the rules.   Paula, the most visible of the two, keeps a very close watch over the place and does not tolerate any deviance from the rules and regulations.  As a result, the facilities are spotless and the atmosphere is one of respect and courtesy for all guests – whether here for one night or several months.

The facility includes free laundry access which is unusual for a campground.  Typically, RV Parks have a laundry but the machines are still coin-operated.  What I find utterly amazing is how these laundry facilities are arranged here.  There is a *men’s* laundry and a *women’s* laundry and you are not permitted to be in the opposite sex’s laundry room!  And, I might add, this is strictly enforced.   The other day, Jim and I were taking a walk and noticed my brother-in-law was in the men’s laundry doing his wash.  The door was propped open, so we stopped and chatted with him.  (I made sure I was out on the sidewalk and not breaking any rules).  Not long after, here comes Paula out of the campground office.  She was actually checking to make sure that I was not *in* the men’s laundry room as she had noticed us walking over that way.  Yes – she is a bit obsessive about enforcing the policies.  But, I’m not complaining.  At least I know someone is paying attention.  This lady is no pushover and I respect her tenacity and fearlessness when it comes to keeping a well-kept campground.

The campground is positively one I would recommend for anyone passing through the area and needing a place to stay for a night.  Sometimes it is hard to judge whether a roadside RV park is okay – but without a doubt you cannot go wrong stopping off here for a night.  It is a bit noisy with road traffic from Rt. 287, and there is a very active railroad just behind the campground.  We hear train whistles and the clickety-clack of train cars rumbling through the area all night long.   I am someone who does not mind the sound of trains and actually find it rather soothing to hear at night.   The truck/car traffic is, by far, more annoying to me.  For a couple of months, however, it is certainly tolerable.

LOCAL SURROUNDINGS

Amazon pays all expenses for a full hook-up site, and extends that for two days prior to start date, and two days after end date.  So, it was nice to be able to arrive and have two days to set up and acclimate to our surroundings.  We are just 10 minutes north of Decatur where you have your choice of a multitude of shopping options – complete with a Walmart Superstore and Lowe’s.  Starbuck’s? Yes.  CVS? Yes.  Public library? Yes.  And I obtained my library card the first week we were here!  (Although, it took some cajoling on my part to acquire library borrowing privileges since I’m not a Texas resident – hard to believe they denied me this privilege at first request! What’s up with that Texas?)

We have not had time to explore the town of Denton (30 minutes away), but I did find a listing online for a food co-op located in this college town.  I’m definitely missing my local co-ops in Vermont and New Hampshire.   Hopefully, next week we will venture over there and check that out.  Unfortunately, we have not found a good place to enjoy happy hour and watch Sunday/Monday night football, either.   Did I mention that this area is considered part of the Bible Belt, and it’s hard to find an actual restaurant with a bar?  While it’s possible to buy wine and beer in the grocery store, when in a restaurant (at least in Decatur) you have to be a member of their *club* in order to enjoy a glass of wine or beer with your meal.  This is totally foreign to me.   Interesting.  To become a member, you show a driver’s license and then they hand you a membership card for free.  Okay – so who’s kidding who here?  I was told this is a dry county and that’s the reason for this charade.  But, when I looked online I found that Wise County (where we are staying) is actually *part wet*.  And the wording is:  Counties (in part) in Which Beer, Wine, and Distilled Spirits Are Legal (143).   Further reading showed me that within *part wet* counties, there may still be local ordinances that differ with respect to alcohol sales in stores and restaurants.  Obviously, that must be what is driving the disparity of alcohol sales in this area. And within Wise County, there are several towns that are completely dry.  My point is – when traveling across country, be aware of the many different laws governing when and where you can purchase/consume alcohol.  Too confusing! I make no judgement about the laws but it’s good to be prepared if that matters to you.

We are located right smack in the middle of the LBJ National Grassland, and did venture over to find some multiuse hiking/horse trails last week.  Not exactly the Eastern Sierras in regards to picturesque scenery!   We did a short 3-mile hike from the TADRA area on the blue trail.  Everything was good until halfway through our hike, when I heard the distinctive sound of a pig squeal off to my left.  I’ve heard stories about the wild hogs in Texas, and all I can say is, I picked up the pace and was uncomfortable for the rest of the hike.   I did read later that the hogs tend to be nocturnal, and similar to other wild animals – preferring to run away from you.  But, that was little comfort and I’m not convinced!

tadra-point-trailhead

picnic-shelter-at-tadra-point-trailhead

Picnic Shelter with post in foreground marking trialheads – trails are identified by color.  We hiked part of the Blue Trail.

Picnic

tadra-point-trailhead-dispersed-camping-area

Dispersed camping area at TADRA

AMAZON

Okay – so on to Amazon and their CamperForce program.  Our first day at work we attended an intensive orientation that included some typical training sessions that anyone in corporate/industrial settings should be familiar with – safety training and workplace harassment awareness – are the two major ones.  More time was spent on safety training than anything else during the day.  And for good reason.  DFW7, the code name for the Haslet fulfillment center, is a state-of-the-art distribution center with miles upon miles of conveyor belts and complicated robotics throughout the plant.  Since we’ve never really worked in an environment like this, the safety training was absolutely necessary – if for no other reason than to impress upon us the need to be aware of our surroundings at all times.

After a full-day of orientation, Amazon works the CamperForce at half-time hours for the first week so that we can slowly acclimate to the physically demanding work.  I think this corporate decision was exceptionally wise!  The work is not mentally hard, but physically demanding and it’s important to understand this before accepting a seasonal position here.  As an employee, you are basically on your feet for the entire day, bending and lifting repetitively.  It’s not for the faint of heart!

We did not get a chance to ease into overtime hours since we started so late in the season.  After our first week of part-time hours, we reported to work our first day back and were informed that mandatory 11-hour days were effective starting the next day.  As workcampers, we have the option to only work 4 10-hour days – but let’s face it – we are here to work and make some extra money.  So, we started almost right away working 11-hour days, and also got offered our 5th overtime day at 11 hours.  Whew!  I’m told that the overtime offerings this year are late in coming as compared to last year.   But, I cannot speak to that.  I guess timing is everything.

amazon-fulfilled

Overhead view of the main floor

Photo credit:  http://www.socalcommercialrealestateblog.com/how-e-commerce-is-impacting-commercial-real-estate/

Let me back up just a bit.  We were initially hired to work in ICQA – Inventory Control Quality Assurance.  Our first week on the job, we were trained on two different processes relevant to this department.  Our second week, we got the opportunity to train as Stowers – and took it.  The more you know how to do, the greater variety you can have in your day, and the increased opportunity for overtime.   Stowers are the folks who take the material received off the trucks in Inbound, and *stow* it in bins (on pods).  Once an order is placed for that item, the *pickers* are the ones who retrieve the material from the pods, fill the order and send the material on its way to be packaged and shipped out.  Okay – got the picture??

pods

Pods that store merchandise with robots that move these around the floor and to stations

Photo credit: http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/keller-citizen/article9367301.html

So, three weeks into our jobs, we are now trained to do more tasks than some of the fulltime Amazon employees.  It’s important to push for this extra training because the physical demands are slightly different with each job.  I prefer to alternate between jobs throughout the day – as it keeps my back and knees from enduring too much repetitive stress.

So, a typical day is as follows:

  1. Report to Stand-up – this is a twice-daily gathering of all members of a team with their managers. Every day, safety tips are reviewed and announcements are made. Before reporting to your assigned station, everyone participates in a series of stretching exercises to loosen up for the physical work.  At Stand-up, employees are assigned a *station* and task for the morning.   Stations are set up differently for different tasks – and customized depending on whether you are Picking, Stowing or Counting (ICQA).
  2. The morning is spent doing your assigned task with a 15-minute break midway between start time and lunch.
  3. After lunch, you report back to the midday Stand-up where you might find that your task and station is identical to the morning, or that your assignment has changed.
  4. The afternoon hours are much like the morning – with an additional 15-minute break. One thing to know – breaks and lunch are cherished as this is an opportunity to give your body a much-needed break.

All Amazon employees work 4 10-hour days as their normal work schedule.  Once PEAK season starts, they are required to work overtime when asked and cannot take any personal time off between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  CamperForce seasonal employees have the option, but most are here to work overtime, so they do.

Some observations I’ve made over the past 3 weeks as a newbie to the CamperForce contingent:

  1. The manager you are assigned when you start work makes all the difference in the world with regard to your experience as a workamper. I’ve had people say that they’ve heard the CamperForce work is grueling and expectations are unreasonable.  This has not been my experience.  I have yet to have anyone comment on my *rate* of productivity or * number* of errors.  We are blessed with a good management team in our area.  Full-time employees are required to achieve a certain level of productivity, but I’ve not experienced this with the CamperForce.  They are happy to have us, and there has been no pressure from management.
  2. Flexibility is the name of the game. As a workamper, it’s important to be flexible and be willing to move to the area where the demand is needed.  You will be appreciated for this, and it’s more rewarding.
  3. The full-time employees who we’ve worked with are awesome, and have been extremely friendly. We’ve had excellent and thorough trainers.  I have spent many years training personnel, and I recognize a good trainer.  I’m told not all workampers have had the same experience.  Again, it all comes down to how effective your manager is in choosing employees
  4. Getting to know and interact with our fellow workampers has been fun. The collective knowledge and wisdom of the group is refreshing and informative.  It’s been enlightening to hear how others travel, and to learn about their  different workamping experiences.  It’s a great networking opportunity!

Well – Jim and I signed up to work on Thanksgiving Day for voluntary overtime.  So, I better get this posted and get to bed!  They made us an offer we could not refuse!  More on our CamperForce experience in the weeks to come……forgive any writing errors as I hurried to get this online!

caprock-canyon-state-park-in-texas

Caprock Canyon State Park in Texas – another brief stopover before arriving in Alvord.

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