Harper's magazine profiles geriatric migrant workers in Minnesota


In the August cover of Harper's magazine, Jessica Bruder writes of a tribe of geriatric migrant workers who "seem one injury or broken axle away from true homelessness." They travel the country in RVs, chasing seasonal, back-breaking employment, unable to retire.

Many wind up running the floors of an Amazon warehouse in Nevada. Some wind up picking raspberries in Vermont. And others, lifting sugar beet sacks in northwestern Minnesota.

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There's been no shortage of coverage of the oil-town booms, but Bruder's piece -- entitled "The End of Retirement" -- highlights a gap in other parts of the Upper Midwest labor market. As younger bodies head for the Bakken formation, the American Crystal Sugar Company has been turning to the so-called Okies of the Great Recession.

"It was cold. It was snowy. It was wet," recalled Gretchen Erb, a sixty-nine-year-old widow who lives full-time in a 1999 Fleetwood Bounder RV. Assigned the overnight shift in Minnesota two years ago, she stood outdoors in subfreezing temperatures to collect paperwork from truck drivers and "take samples" -- i.e., to fill and lift thirty-pound sacks of produce. Another worker, sixty-two-year-old Brian Gore, described driving a Bobcat loader with a broken-off door during the 2013 harvest getting pelted with sugar beets -- including one the size of a grapefruit -- that flew off a malfunctioning conveyor belt. He compared the experience to being strafed by "an automatic potato gun."

It's not hard to imagine why employers would prefer to use old timers: They're cheap, dependable and, sadly, becoming more common. Bruder reports that nearly 7.7 million Americans aged sixty-five or older "were still employed last year, up 60 percent from a decade earlier."

Rob Grunewald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, tells us that the Red River Valley has traditionally been a stable place for manufacturing and construction. But towns that are within 100 to 200 miles of the oil fields are reporting a large migration of young laborers during certain seasons. Although the American labor market is growing as a whole, it's not replacing older workers as quickly as year's past -- which explains why "companies in the Red River Valley are looking at creative ways to attract (new) workers," Grunewald says.

It also helps explain another part of the geriatric migrant phenomenon, one that David Allen Larson, professor of labor and employment law at Hamline University, describes as "almost paradoxical." In recent years, he says, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received more complaints related to age discrimination than race. The workers go where they're invited.

The solution? Well, in the long term, Larson points to the possibility of federally funded 401(k)s that would force younger workers to set aside more of their paycheck for retirement.

That's all well and nice for Millennials, but the question of how to provide for seniors who've already missed the boat is beyond difficult. No one we asked had an answer.

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