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Worker shortage taking toll on campgrounds and site fees

It really is a great time to be a campground owner… except for the insurance troubles we talked about last week, the supply chain issues and the seemingly never-ending problems with staffing.

You’ve no doubt literally seen the signs of the labor crisis in the windows of nearly every U.S. business. From your favorite fast-food joint to high-end resort hotels, all have signs out front begging for help. It was bad enough for employers before the pandemic. Minimum wages were on the rise, and entry-level jobs were tough to fill.

Today, we’ve added a new degree of difficulty with people quitting their jobs in record numbers. More than 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September alone.

Yet campgrounds are booming. Parks are full seven days a week. Revenues are way up. All is good… right?

More campers = more help

Not necessarily. All those new camping customers mean you need a lot more help. After all, cabins need to be cleaned more often, and more campers generate a lot more garbage that needs to be hauled away. And those twice-a-day bathhouse cleanings likely had to be upped to several more daily sessions.

Campgrounds that relied on local workers found themselves in cutthroat competition with other entry-level jobs in the community. Folks who had gladly returned to work at the campground every spring now found it much more lucrative to take a shift behind the counter at McDonald’s.

The federal minimum wage is now $7.25. I dare you to find anyone working for that paltry sum these days.

Nearly every state has boosted its own minimum wage well past the federal standard. In Arizona, you’ll get $12.15 an hour, and in California, it’s $13 an hour. In Massachusetts? Try $13.50. Washington state gives workers a $13.69 minimum wage, and Washington, D.C., takes the top prize at $15.20 an hour.

The hard truth for businesses like campgrounds is that paying the current minimum wage in their state likely won’t cut it. Even the minimum wages in states blowing by the federal standard aren’t cutting it. Most businesses are forced to go well beyond their state minimum wage to hire and retain their workers.

Work campers to the rescue?

One huge benefit for campground owners is the longstanding tradition of work camping. For decades, full-time or extended-season campers have traded some of their free time for campground jobs. Usually, work campers toil away part-time in exchange for a free campsite and maybe a small hourly wage.

KOA, for instance, has its own “Work At KOA” program for work campers. The program acts as a “dating service,” matching participating work campers with KOA owners with jobs to fill. Right now, there are more than 2,000 work camper “teams” in the KOA program.

KOA program manager Kama Humphrey says they’d love to have more teams involved because having a pool of able work campers to draw from takes a little of the pressure off KOA owners.

Many work campers were sidelined by the pandemic in 2020. Most have emerged in 2021 to discover that they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to picking jobs.

I’ve heard more than one campground owner voice their frustrations with the competition within the camping business. Work campers on their way to their next gig are often “short stopped” by other owners along their travels and offered jobs with better benefits on the spot. This leads to uncomfortable calls or emails to owners that were expecting them soon.

How it affects RVers

The difficulties in securing enough staff on campgrounds invariably lead to service issues of varying degrees. Grass doesn’t get cut. Trash doesn’t get hauled. Bathrooms don’t get cleaned enough. Office hours are curtailed. You’ll also likely notice that the staff they do have are stressed by the added workloads and hours.

Competing for campground staffing is also affecting the bottom lines at campgrounds throughout the country. The summer help that cost you $7 an hour last year might cost you $16 an hour now. As usually happens when a big expense occurs in business, the reaction is often a price increase to customers.

Wages are just one more factor, along with insurance costs, supplies like lumber and water, and services fees that are driving up campground costs. Yes, owners are certainly making a lot of money, but they likely aren’t having a lot of fun right now.

If you’ve ever considered taking up the work camper lifestyle, now would be a great time.

Here are a plethora of resources to help you get started:

RELATED:

“Will Work for Space” – Could work camping be the solution for a long-term site?

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Worker 1
16 days ago

These campground owners that complain about worker shortages should take a look in the mirror and ask themselves if they would work for those wages.You have experienced work campers that are willing to go above and beyond and you take advantage of their loyalties and don’t reward them in any way. We’ve been doing this for 8 years now and have seen more greediness than when we first started the work camping gigs. When we first started we would get a decent hourly wage and a site and a end of season bonus that would help curtail our fuel expenses and this would usually make us want to return the next year. Then came the greed of the owners. Same wages, some wanted some hours (as many as 20 hrs each) in return for site and started charging you for the utilities. Some of us would be put in charge during our supervisors would take their time away from a campground/resort and not be rewarded from the owners. Some would say no cleaning bathrooms (many of us know that’s wrong).
Won’t let finis

John
16 days ago

So sad they gotta come up with more than $7/hr. to clean sh*t and toilets n garbage…..oh wait, I’m really not. YOU go clean sh*t and let us know what you feel it’s worth!

Tom Piper
17 days ago

We have 6 years worth of experience as workampers along with reference letters from all our employers. I send out the resume & references along with a cover letter, then follow-up with a phone call or lettter within a week. Usually I do not hear back at all, not even an acknowledgement that the information was received. If the parks have too many applications to be able to answer each one then how can they say there is no help available. If they don’t have very many applications then there is no excuse for the rudeness of not sending at least an acknowledgement.

Hogladyrider
14 days ago
Reply to  Tom Piper

100% spot on….we’ve had the same experiences, very sad indeed.

MrDisaster
17 days ago

Workcampers often work 10-20 hours to “cover” their campsite. If they are working a 32 hour week that’s half or more of their weekly wage. The remaining money covers food, maybe fuel and an occasional drink. Yes potential workers are asking for a decent wage and be paid for all hours worked. Those that volunteer at public facilities work fewer hours usually less responsibilities and more time off (and the site is usually offered at no cost).

Virginia
17 days ago

Further driving up staffing costs in the future may be an increased need for PAID workcampers as volunteers quickly tire of putting up with the new level of entitled campers. It’s hard enough to put up with adults who don’t know how to properly use a bathroom when getting paid for your efforts. Doing it for free gets old quickly.

ella Lewis
17 days ago

My wife and work in the Washington State for 10 years after retirement at the age 62.
Most people who work in the Park system do not work in the parks to earn money.

I wanted to enjoy life and spend time with family after retirement and the Parks gave me that opportunity.
We are in late years of life and the Parks keep us active and off the sofa at home and more healthy now.
The Parks helps young people looking for part time work and the Parks gave that opportunity to them.
Parks jobs are not a career but help people enjoy life in their later years.

Mike Sherman
17 days ago

Just a suggestion for campground owners that want to keep their volunteers…..primo their site, give them some space, maybe a little fence, cement pad, etc. etc. Won’t cost that much but can sure make a difference when a volunteer wants to return.

John Irvine
17 days ago

“It was bad enough for employers” Yes, and it has been worse for employees. The minimum wage had gone up $2.10 in over 20 years.

Dana D
17 days ago

Solving the worker shortage is easy. Shut down all the Unemployment Offices in every State. Stop rewarding people (Child Tax Credits) for having kids they can’t afford. Then people would have to work for a living and not depend on my tax dollars to support them. Worker shortage solved! Just like it used to be years ago.

John Koenig
17 days ago
Reply to  Dana D

Sadly, a LOT of this is TRUE. We (and ESPECIALLY the younger generations) have become an “Entitlement Society” expecting to be given “the good life” WITHOUT having worked to earn it. Too many people expect somebody else to pick up the tab rather than pay their own way. I got my first job when I was 12 and have worked steadily until I retired. I have EARNED the retirement I now enjoy but fear the government is going to take my retirement funds by taxing me into oblivion so they can buy votes.

MrDisaster
17 days ago
Reply to  Dana D

Your solution is simplistic and flawed. Not all unemployed have the means to travel and work at a campground. Much less acquire a RV. You confuse the Child Tax Credit (CTC) with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). EITC is designed to boost the wage of those working for minimum wages and the CTC reduces the tax liability. Both are designed to provide those families at or near the poverty level a little more income to provide for their family.

Vincee
14 days ago
Reply to  MrDisaster

I disagree with MrDisaster. Dana D wasn’t talking about the unemployed owning campers or doing any kind of excessive traveling. What she was correctly stated in my opinion was perhaps the parent of a couple of kids worked at a “local” campground a couple of days a week to pick up a little extra money. Maybe this extra income provided the family a means to take a trip, have a second vehicle, pay for a child’s violin lessons, or whatever they desired. Now, Uncle Joe Gov’t provides that extra cash so why work at the poor paying campground.

Hogladyrider
17 days ago

As a workamper for the past 6 six I think the problem is deeper than wages. Most workampers are retired and bring some experience to the table. It is important to respect and appreciate ones employees not just pay them a wage.
Dealing with the public in customer service/hospitality in today’s society is very different from previous years. There is a huge sense of entitlement by guests. I have seen a big swing in the attitude of guests just since Covid hit. We work because we want to stay active in our retirement years.
Many campground owners have gotten “greedy” with the additional wealth they are gaining from additional business due to the booming RV industry and as such they are “forgetting” about their workampers who are contributing to their bottom line and good reviews.
Workamping is much more than about wages.

Traceler
17 days ago
Reply to  Hogladyrider

Very well put!

Marty
17 days ago

This is very short term anomaly. Automation in every corner of the business world, from robotic warehouses to self driving transportation to retail trade/restaurant self service technology,  to automated agricultural systems, etc. etc. will explode the number of low skilled, potentially “unemployable”, people in our country to massive proportion. The current labor shortage will drive even more businesses to automate at a faster pace. This will be exacerbated by the millions of “migrants” flowing in through our porous borders looking for low skilled jobs already breaking the bank on our social welfare system. The pendulum is going to swing back very hard.

Last edited 17 days ago by Marty
Drew
17 days ago
Reply to  Marty

Marty,

According to many of my sources they’d disagree with you. The pendulum could swing in more directions than just back and forth.

Tom Piper
17 days ago
Reply to  Marty

Only problem with this entire premise is there is no labor shortage. For the last month I have submitted more than a dozen applications, big box stores and mom-and-pops alike. Crickets. If they were really looking, they would be responding.

Jeff
17 days ago
Reply to  Tom Piper

Tom,
I agree with your statement. If they were really looking they would be responding. I have a full time job. There are times I will send out my application to companies and never hear back. These companies have help wanted signs outside their door. Maybe my job skills do not match what they’re looking for. Have temp agencies get a hold of me. I tell the temp agencies send my application to these companies. Temp agencies do not get back to me.

Richard Hughes
17 days ago

Sadly politics plays a part in this problem. Workers demand better wages, but vote for politicians who say higher wages are not what the little guy needs. They take their big check, healthcare and benefits, then vote to keep those at the bottom from getting ahead. The guy at the bottom then votes for the guy with his foot on his neck because he thinks the politician cares about him. Àll the while the campground owner is short staffed and votes for the guy keeping wages low. Round and round it goes and everyone loses.

Glenn
17 days ago
Reply to  Richard Hughes

Well put! 👍

John Irvine
17 days ago
Reply to  Glenn

Agreed

Bob M
17 days ago
Reply to  Richard Hughes

You’re so right.

T. Helms
17 days ago
Reply to  Richard Hughes

Agree

David Scheeler
17 days ago

I’m tired of business owners complaining of having to pay higher wages. As you noted in your article “revenues are way up.” Pay/offer a decent wage and businesses will attract workers.

Ron Sifford
17 days ago

Business need to use some of the money they have received since the very large tax break in 2017 and pay workers a decent wage with benefits.

Leonard Rempel
17 days ago

I am so tired of hearing “worker shortages” for “entry level jobs”. I spent a 30 year career in the hospitality industry, so I know what I speak of.
When I needed to hire more entry level positions, I had to ensure I was an employer of choice, AND pay more than my competing restaurant. Trust me, there are plenty of workers here in Canada and I am sure in the U.S., but paying poverty wages won’t cut it anymore. I realize that ALL business costs must be passed on to us consumers, but we all need to stop crying about labour shortages when there are none. What there is a shortage of is reasonable wages for reasonable work.

Jim Prideaux
17 days ago
Reply to  Leonard Rempel

Era of cheap labor is over. Saw a youtube video put out by an entrepreneur. His take was that in the past many folks kept on at low pay jobs because at least they had work and felt secure. Mass layoffs during pandemic shot a hole it that idea. Now they know there is no thing a secure job and want more money.

Crowman
17 days ago
Reply to  Leonard Rempel

In my town in Northern California the wages they’re offering in places like McDonalds is 15 to 17 dollars an hour and still has help shortages. The welding supply shop I go to has been advertising for a delivery job truck driver for local deliveries at $35.00 per hour and in 3 months only I kid applied with 6 months experience demanding $45.00 per hour. They passed on him at that rate and the job is still unfilled. I think the problem is deeper than reasonable wages.

Drew
17 days ago
Reply to  Crowman

No matter what the experience level people want high tech jobs.

Billinois
16 days ago
Reply to  Leonard Rempel

So many small businesses, restaurants, cafe’s, small retail shops were built on the premise of cheap, abundant labor. Frequent employee turnover has always been a way of life but was able to dealt with; just hire someone else.
That is changing and a lot of these small enterprises will cease to exist because they can’t afford to pay the wages needed to sustain their business.
We recently went out to breakfast at a local restaurant and dropped $27 for a meal that used to cost half that or less. Maybe I’m out of touch (we don’t eat out often) but to me that is not sustainable.