Originally posted at AlterNet

Where are the jobs? That question is on the minds of millions of Americans who have lost jobs during the Great Recession. During this historically lean jobs creation period, finding a new job often requires thinking outside the box. And you can’t think much further outside the job search box than “workamping” — also known as work-camping.

“The RV’s kitchen slide broke in Eutaw, Alabama, which is in the middle of the middle of nowhere. We managed. We were stuck in the mud in Clarksdale, Mississippi during a launch party for the anthology, Delta Blues. The tow truck driver who pulled our rig out of the mud jackknifed it and broke out the pickup’s rear window. Guess I can add my broken wrist to the list of oopsies.”

That’s how Suzann Ellingsworth described a couple of days in the workamping life she shares with her husband, Dave, as they drive their RV through the southern and plains states looking for work.

According to Workamper.com, a workamper is “an adventurous individual who has chosen a wonderful lifestyle that combines ANY kind of part-time or full-time work with RV camping. If you work as an employee, operate a business, or donate your time as a volunteer, AND you sleep in an RV (or on-site housing), you are a Workamper. Workampers generally receive compensation in the form of a free campsite, usually with free utilities (electricity, water, and sewer hookups) and additional wages.”

Calling it a “wonderful lifestyle” seems a bit over the top for some workampers. After communicating with Suzann for more than six months and observing the Ellingsworth’s ups and frequent downs, it’s obvious that workamping is not all fun and games, at least for those who hit the road in need of a job to survive.

Most workamper jobs are of the minimum-wage variety. Workampers generally don’t receive unemployment insurance benefits, severance pay or any warning that a job is about to end. Workampers face many of the same job insecurity issues as the millions of Americans who have been downsized due to job outsourcing, financial mismanagement and slow consumer demand for products and services, except workampers are purposely more nimble and have been conditioned to pack up and move to where the jobs are. “We have to be mobile to land a job,” said Suzann. Those who become jobless and live in traditional stationary homes aren’t usually able to move to another city on a moment’s notice.

Since workamping is a nomadic lifestyle, it’s difficult to collect a headcount. Steve Anderson, president of Workamper.com, said the most recent workamper survey is from KOA, but it is dated: “Nearly 10 years ago the KOA Corporation gave an estimate that 750,000 were living the workamping lifestyle. Their data was questioned then and at best was an estimated guess. Over the years we have seen our membership remain in the 14,000 range with thousands of others in the dreaming stages of workamping. It is very transitional lifestyle, meaning folks begin and end the lifestyle every day.”

“More people are turning to workamping as a way to earn money,” said Jaimie Hall Bruzenak, RVlifestyleexperts.com founder and author of Support Your RV Lifestyle! An Insider’s Guide to Working on the Road. “I would say it is mixed, though. Some are the traditional retired couples who want to either earn a little money or get a free site while having the chance to travel and stay in beautiful places. There are also those who have been hit with the downturn — either they don’t have enough retirement income to live on or perhaps lost their jobs and look to workamping as an alternative way to make a living. There are people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who choose this lifestyle. My late husband and I were 47 when we started.”

For an increasing number of older workers, workamping may offer an opportunity to supplement retirement incomes. According to a 2011 study from the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, “More than three in five U.S. workers in their 50s and 60s plan on working past 65 — and 47% of that group say they’ll do so because they’ll need the money or health benefits.”

The Great Recession has cost millions of Americans their livelihoods as it did the Ellingsworths. Dave, according to Suzann, “was a marketing/advertising/IT professional–the first corporate division to fall in any economic downturn, counterproductive as that is.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported for August that 6.2 million workers have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. Over two million workers have been unemployed for 99 weeks or more – near record levels.

Suzann is uncomfortably familiar with her husband’s job search struggle. “Over the UI period, he sent hundreds of resumes. It netted three in-person interviews, no offers. Words can’t describe what it does to a man to be unable to find work–the grind-down process. Constantly ginning hope that ‘this will be the day’ meets no dice at mid-afternoon. Friends and family members eventually believe you aren’t trying hard enough, you’re too picky, you’re enjoying an extended, paid vacation of sorts.”

It’s certainly not a paid vacation for millions of job seekers. The BLS reported that there were 3.1 million job openings in the US, “well below the 4.4 million openings when the recession began in December 2007.” When the unemployed, discouraged workers, and underemployed (those seeking full-time work, but currently working only part-time), are added together, there are roughly eight people available for each full-time job opening.

Both natives of Missouri, Suzann, 58, and Dave, 56, are the parents of three grown children and grandparents of three. A freelance writer, Suzann was apprehensive about the dramatic change in lifestyle once she and her husband decided to take on the workamper lifestyle, “I’ll admit a serious case of intimidation at the prospect of a so-called real job, having womanned a keyboard in a home office for a couple of decades. Small businesses don’t come any smaller than a self-employed writer.”

The Ellingsworths were forced to sell their home in the fall of 2009. After thoroughly researching what they would need to become workamper road warriors, they purchased a 2002 pickup and a 34-foot-long, six-year-old RV, or as it was dubbed “a Pringles can with tires.”

On January 21, 2010, they packed their remaining possessions and their two rescued greyhounds into the pickup and RV. They had hoped to gradually learn the ropes of operating the large rig, but unseasonable weather, “kiboshed all plans to practice hitching the RV to the pickup, practice driving them on empty parking lots. The first time Dave hitched the two was the day we left. The first time he drove the two hitched was when we pulled out. Even we can’t believe we did that, let alone made it through Memphis early afternoon traffic alive.”

When asked what they miss most about the non-RV life, Suzann replied, “Of course, family and friends the most. The sense we’re abdicating our responsibilities to Dave’s elderly parents, our three grown children, and three grandchildren gets to us. Life does go on–ours now separate from those we love most.”

The jobs available for workampers are generally lower paying and without benefits – often minimum wage, or less if you are supplied with a dedicated campsite, which can include electricity and water. If you pay for a campsite, it can cost anywhere from $350 to $500 a month. Workampers who have a secondary form of income can obtain a free campsite at a national, state, or private RV park by “volunteering” 20-30 hours of work.

William Smith of Happyvagabonds.com, an RV camping and jobs search site, said, “The people who most successful at workamping will generally not rely on workamping as a sole source of income. Compensation is typically on the low end of the scale for workampers. It is not unusual to see campgrounds offer arrangements where the workamper will actually earn less than minimum wage in exchange for their campsite.”

Work-camping.com notes “Many work-camping jobs are seasonal, running from about May to October, though some positions in warm-weather states like Florida or Arizona may be year-round.”

While most jobs are of the minimum-wage variety, Jaimie Hall Bruzenak added, “There are many other opportunities, some of which do pay more. There are sales jobs such as working for Air Photo, where workampers I’ve interviewed say they make $40,000 a year or more. My late husband and I worked as seasonal workers for the National Park Service and made $12-$18 an hour. In a six-month season, we could live on one paycheck and then bank the other.”

During the 2010 winter holiday season, Dave was fortunate to secure 40-hour-a-week employment at an Amazon distribution center — a workamper’s dream job. Amazon is a company that caters to the workamper, according to Jaimie Hall Bruzenak: “Amazon hires as many workampers as they can for work in their warehouses and pay very well for seasonal work, as well as provide an RV site. They have found the more mature workers to be more productive than the younger ones, in spite of the fact that they aren’t as physically able as the young ones.”

Living the workamper life can be expensive. There’s the matter of food (growing food in Styrofoam ice chests offers fresh vegetables), fuel (gas, diesel and propane), vehicle insurance and repairs, communications, campsite fees, and satellite TV. Why satellite TV? “It’s all but mandatory, as [broadcast television] is not available in myriad areas surprisingly not far beyond municipal limits.” Beyond the standard TV fare, “The Weather Channel is the most important channel because we need to keep track of tornados and flash floods.”

Besides the weather, another enemy of the workamper is weight, since each pound of cargo increases the cost of fuel to travel. “We continually jettison items we thought we needed and learned we didn’t, including the sofa-bed that came with the RV. Before anything is purchased, thought must be given to whether it’s truly needed and how much it weighs — weight being a concept unconsidered in a sticks-and-bricks house, but critical to a house that must be towed everywhere.”

The Ellingsworths have met scores of full-time workampers, “Including families with children either home-schooled or enrolled in a respective school system for the duration of the temp job, then moving on to the next. The average age of full-timers is 45-54, which counters the mental image of doddering senior citizens on wheels.”

Prior to Dave’s job at Amazon, the Ellingsworths worked at a seasonal amusement park in Altoona, IA for six months, Dave as a rides assistant and Suzann as a cashier. Then they found what seemed like the perfect workamper opportunity near the Gulf Coast of TX. The site location was perfect; two Wal-Marts within an easy drive, a bookstore, a library, a Dairy Queen and the Texas coastline were alluring close-by retreats. The job was guaranteed until October 2011, with the distinct possibility of renewal. Dave was a park handyman and Suzann was an office assistant. All was going well until they saw an ad for the jobs they were holding listed on a workamper website. While fulfilling their job duties, the Ellingsworths had observed park mismanagement and other irregularities that made them uncomfortable. They decided to leave their positions before the situation deteriorated further. With that job’s sudden end, they headed back to Springfield, MO in May 2011, to regroup. On their way home, one of their beloved greyhounds died unexpectedly and the second one died recently.

Workamping is another option in the pursuit of employment during a relatively stagnant US jobs market. The American workforce is being forced to change dramatically in ways that were not demanded of recent generations. The days of working for a single company all your working life and earning a pension that will support you adequately in retirement are ending. Employers now demand less overhead and more productivity in order to increase profits. Full-time workers who receive higher pay and benefits are being replaced by as-needed, contract, freelance and part-time workers who are offered lower pay and fewer, if any, benefits. Large corporations are shifting profit centers offshore and taking with them the most valuable employees who are willing to relocate, while downsizing those who are less skilled and less mobile.

The Ellingsworths are resigned to living their current lifestyle for as long as necessary. Suzann says, “I can’t anticipate retiring, since there’s no retirement income. The RV is home until it isn’t. We would never buy another house, since we wouldn’t want to lose it. But we’re managing. It is a true day-at-a-time lifestyle.” There are 25 million unemployed and underemployed deciding what they will do next to find a job. Workamping is not the road chosen by most jobless, but for the Ellingsworths and thousands of others it is, for now, the only available road.

Labor Day 2011. Mike Luckovich - GoComics.com

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The following piece comes from Lee Weal who writes at http://wealworld.wordpress.com/. Lee is unemployed and knows firsthand the frustration, disappointment and the life-altering sting of long-term unemployment. From her blog:

I’m a “99er” and for those who don’t know what that means, it’s someone who has exhausted all unemployment benefit extensions and is unable to find work. People over 50 have historically been discriminated against for employment and it’s even worse now than it’s ever been. In the meantime, people still have to live. Me, I had to give away my beloved cats and I’m now living on my 81-year-old mother’s couch.

Lee was impressed by efforts of a one-time, long-term unemployed Facebook “friend,” Pam Sexton, who originated a campaign for another 99er, Alexandra Jarrin, who was nearly homeless and in desperate need of financial assistance. You can read more about Alexandra’s story at: Alexandra Jarrin who organized 99er’s “Letters to Bernie” is nearly homeless and Update: 99er Alexandra Jarrin is Thankful, Yet Fearful and Losing Hope.  

Pam Sexton did what most people want to do, but often are unable to do, and that is to take immediate action when the situation demands. What follows are Lee Weal’s impressions of Pam Sexton’s efforts for Alexandra Jarrin.

Be the Change…Part ll

To the Pam Sextons of the World: this is a fan letter. No, this is a love letter.

I never met Pam Sexton. Never talked to her on the phone, never emailed her. Wouldn’t know her if I fell over her in the middle of the night. I’ve read her posts on Facebook and responded to many as she has responded to mine. Pam Sexton went above and beyond to help a 99er to get what she needed most to survive: money.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I’m also a 99er; one of the long term unemployed who has exhausted unemployment benefits. It’s been an interesting journey so far. (I’m using the word “interesting” as a euphemism…. but I’ll get back to that at another time.)

It’s not enough to say you care; the caring is in the doing. The mainstream media is finally catching up to something that many of us have known for years: that we are in deep, deep trouble. That the economy is tanking because of the assault on the middle class who are losing ground every single day. Many have become the new poor. I mean, really poor. I mean lost their homes-credit rating tanked-living in a shelter-poor. And a lot of people who know people like this feel badly about it and say things like, “So sorry to hear of your troubles. I’ll pray for you,” as they go on about their business. That’s wonderful… and I’m convinced that many of them actually mean it. But you can’t pay rent with prayers. The utility company will not accept good intentions as payment.

Others, like Pam Sexton, roll up their sleeves and say, “There must be something I can do. What can I DO?” She went out of her way, above and beyond, to bring attention to the plight of another 99er who was about to become homeless. As a result, “strangers” opened their hearts, minds, and wallets and donated enough money to keep this woman afloat for just a little while longer. ‘Cause that’s all it takes for many of us. That’s what unemployment benefits did for us. They didn’t make anyone rich. They didn’t allow us to take trips or enjoy a great life. They allowed us to stay afloat for just a little while longer while we searched every ad, talked to anyone with a pulse, sent out resumes on a daily basis, and searched under every rock for a job. Not “The” job, not the job of our dreams, just a way to pay our bills, keep our homes, and maintain our dignity. And now for many of us, that lifeline has been taken away.

A friend of mine recently sent me some information about an opportunity that is not quite right for me, but I was unbelievably touched by this generosity of spirit. He didn’t just say, “So sorry….” He attempted to help me find a path to get the one single thing I need: a job which would pay me money to keep me from sinking further into the abyss. The caring is in the doing. It’s in calling/emailing/Facebooking people who have no job, no money, and no resources and saying, “How are you? What can I do?” It’s sharing some of what you have if you can afford to share without thinking about what’s in it for you. It’s about listening and letting people vent when they need to. It’s about being a “mensch”. It’s about not walking away and thinking, “Whew, glad it’s her and not me.” It’s about putting away judgment and blame and self-righteousness and most of all selfishness and actually, physically, emotionally, tangibly reaching out in any way that you can. ANY way that you can.

Mind you, I’m not discounting or denigrating the power of prayer and how meaningful it is to many people. If that’s all you’ve got to give, that’s wonderful. It’s lovely. And I’m not suggesting that anyone who is truly struggling give money to others when they are doing their best to survive as well. But if you have more to share with someone in need, you should. You could give more because… why not?

You could give more just because it might save someone from living in the street and because it would make you feel good. And if you believe in heaven, it would help pay for your ticket.

Thanks to Lee Weal for allowing The Layoff List to post her piece.

While Pam Sexton was the initial force behind the effort to help Alexandra Jarrin, she didn’t act alone; there were many contributors to Alexandra’s cause, including those who gave money, those who spread the word on Twitter and Facebook, as well as those who offered advice and encouragement. A few 99ers contributed $1 to help out and it all added up to a successful campaign to keep Alexandra from being homeless…. at least for now.

It will take millions of similarly extraordinary efforts on a large scale to end the tragedy that is long-term unemployment. It will demand the participation of  individuals, religious organizations, non-profits, and the private and public sectors. And the time for action is now.

Actions do speak louder than words, but actions have to be recognized by words to have a lasting effect; Lee Weal’s words did that exceptionally well.


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Reprinted from Robert Reich’s blog. Please visit his blog for additional, timely economic articles.

Americans are deeply confused about why the economy is so bad – and their President isn’t telling them. In fact, the White House apparently has decided to join with Republicans and blame it on the long-term budget deficit.

Before I turn to the President, though, let’s be clear: The lousy economy is due to insufficient demand. Consumers – who are 70 percent of the economy — can’t and won’t buy because they’re running out of cash. They can’t borrow against homes that are worth a third less than they were five years ago, and most consumers are bad credit risks anyway because they’re losing their jobs and their wages are dropping.  They also have to start saving for the kids’ college or for retirement, which will cut their spending even more.

Without enough consumers, businesses won’t hire enough people and pay them enough to reverse the vicious cycle. So we’re dead in the water. Even the stock market has caught on to the truth.

Which means government has to step in to boost the economy – as it has every time the economy has fallen into recession over the last eight downturns. Include the massive spending on World War II that lifted us out of the Great Depression, and it’s nine. The Fed can help, but it can’t do it alone. And it’s least helpful after a huge asset bubble has burst because the financial system won’t channel low interest rates where they’re most needed – to small businesses and average consumers.

This time we tried one stimulus that was way too small relative to the size of the falloff in demand that started in 2008 — especially given that states and locales cut their spending by almost as much as the federal government increased it.

So we need another – a bold jobs plan. (I’ve offered an outline of what it might look like in prior posts.)

Which gets me to the President. Even though the President’s two former top economic advisors (Larry Summers and Christy Roemer) have called for a major fiscal boost to the economy, the President has remained mum. Why?

I’m told White House political operatives are against a bold jobs plan. They believe the only jobs plan that could get through Congress would be so watered down as to have almost no impact by Election Day. They also worry the public wouldn’t understand how more government spending in the near term can be consistent with long-term deficit reduction. And they fear Republicans would use any such initiative to further bash Obama as a big spender.

So rather than fight for a bold jobs plan, the White House has apparently decided it’s politically wiser to continue fighting about the deficit. The idea is to keep the public focused on the deficit drama – to convince them their current economic woes have something to do with it, decry Washington’s paralysis over fixing it, and then claim victory over whatever outcome emerges from the process recently negotiated to fix it. They hope all this will distract the public’s attention from the President’s failure to do anything about continuing high unemployment and economic anemia.

When I first heard this I didn’t want to believe it. But then I listened to the President’s statement yesterday in the midst of yesterday’s 634-point drop in the Dow.

At a time when the nation’s eyes were on him, seeking an answer to what was happening, he chose not to talk about the need for a bold jobs plan but to talk instead about the budget deficit – as if it were responsible for the terrible economy, including Wall Street’s plunge. He spoke of Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the nation’s debt as proof that Washington’s political paralysis over deficit reduction “could do enormous damage to our economy and the world’s,” and said the nation could reduce its deficit and jump-start the economy if there was “political will in Washington.”

The President then called upon the nation’s political leadership to stop “drawing lines in the sand.” The lines were obviously Republicans’ insistence on cutting entitlements and enacting a balanced-budget amendment while refusing to raise taxes on the rich, and the Democrats’ insistence on tax increases on the rich while refusing to cut entitlements.

These partisan “lines in the sand” are irrelevant to the current crisis. They’re not even relevant to the budget standoff now that Congress and the President have agreed to a process that postpones the next round of debt-ceiling chicken until after the election.

But that process itself will offer enough distraction over coming months to let the White House avoid coming up with a bold jobs plan – even if the nation succumbs to a double dip.

The drama continues this week and next as congressional leaders decide on their “super committee” of 12 lawmakers (six from each party). It then runs for another three months as the super committee decides on $1.5 trillion of proposed cuts, culminating in a tumultuous December when Congress votes on the package. Then we’ll have more drama if, as seems likely, Congress votes it down and the budget triggers go into effect – cutting sharply into defense and Medicare. But this stage won’t require any new decisions from Congress or the White House because the cuts happen automatically.

After that, we’re deep into campaign season and very possibly a double dip recession. Republicans will blame “big government” and the President and Democrats will blame Republican intransigence over the budget.

During yesterday’s pep talk, Obama restated his small-bore calls for extending a payroll tax cut that expires at the end of the year, extending unemployment insurance benefits, and creating an ill-defined “infrastructure bank” to create construction jobs. But these policy miniatures were added as a postscript to the debt talk, as if he felt obligated to mention jobs.

There’s still time for political operatives in the White House – and the person they work for – to change their minds. If economic stresses increase, Americans may insist on government doing more. A CNN poll released Monday found 60% believe the nation remains in an economic downturn and conditions are worsening. Only 36% believed that in April.

But for now the President is being badly advised. The magnitude of the current jobs and growth crisis demands a boldness and urgency that’s utterly lacking. As the President continues to wallow in the quagmire of long-term debt reduction, Congress is on summer recess and the rest of Washington is asleep.

The President should present a bold plan, summon lawmakers back to Washington to pass it, and, if they don’t, vow to fight for it right up through Election Day.

Another compromise


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