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:
- Work at KOA
- Happy Vagabonds
- Workamper News
- Workers on Wheels
- Snowbird RV Trails