Dusk settled over the campground by the Red River, and inside her spacious motorhome, 64-year-old Theresa Delikat was just waking up.
As reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 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% 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% 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% of Americans have no retirement savings, the state Department of Commerce says.
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