“You’re not going to buy an RV and drive it off the lot and have no hassles”
Elkhart, Indiana is to recreational vehicles what Detroit once was to automobiles. Four out of every five RVs in the U.S. roll-out of Elkhart, an area dominated by three major players the way Detroit was once dominated by Ford, Chrysler, and GM: Thor Industries, Forest River (owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway), and Winnebago Industries. Unlike Detroit, however, Elkhart is union-free in a so-called “right-to-work” state. And unlike Detroit in past decades Elkhart has been ravaged by the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The result, as documented October 19, 2022, by the Indianapolis Star in a 15,000-word, four-part, multi-media series is an industry riddled with broken bodies and a record number of recalled RVs even as the major manufacturers all have been posting unsurpassed revenues and profit margins.
Lockdowns that confined Americans to their homes in 2020 created a record demand for recreational vehicles, much of it from first-time buyers who were looking for a safe way to travel. But COVID also decimated the ranks of RV factory workers even as they were being pushed to increase production.
Already strenuous jobs suddenly required even more from workers whose earnings are largely dependent on how many RVs they push out the door. Several compared it to a football practice that lasts eight hours or more leaving a body battered at the end of every day.
RV workers say they were frequently allowed—and sometimes pressured—to show up while sick or injured to meet the demand for a luxury product, according to IndyStar interviews with two dozen current and former workers and several family members. Some faced steep pay cuts for missing work due to COVID. Others were fired.
As factories became COVID-19 hotspots, companies raked in record profits. Manufacturers shipped out 48 percent more RVs in 2021 than the year before the pandemic.
Inside the factories where those RVs were made, workers shared stories about the human cost behind the record profits.
From plywood and junk parts to luxury coaches
The RV industry in Elkhart County began with a man who built a travel trailer using plywood and junkyard parts for his family during the Great Depression. Milo Miller began building more trailers that he sold from a rented shed at a Mishawaka lumber yard, RV historian Al Hesselbart wrote in RV Capital of the World: A Fun-filled Indiana History. Other business-minded Hoosiers followed suit launching the first RV factories in the state. Those few factories turned into a few dozen then several hundred from RV manufacturers to parts suppliers, transporters, and repair shops.
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Today, the industry dominates life in this manufacturing region just south of the Michigan border. Roads are typically congested as early as 3 a.m. as workers head to the factories. Restaurants are busy at lunch time when plants typically let workers out.
Across the factories in a county that’s home to blue-collar workers, grueling conditions are a long-accepted way of life. Calling in sick has always been seen as a sign of weakness, workers told IndyStar and many said they fear getting fired for taking too many sick days.
But problems in RV plants have been brewing long before the pandemic. Workers told IndyStar about injuries from lax safety rules and the fast pace, drug use, unfair pay structures, a disciplinary system that punishes workers for taking sick time, a lack of training, and quality issues with products that leave factories.
Several RV workers said they and others inside the factories needed daily uppers such as energy drinks, Ritalin, or Adderall—even methamphetamine—to keep up with the pace. The most readily available option, energy drinks, can cause heart problems, worsen anxiety, and send workers to emergency rooms when abused.
Still, tens of thousands flock to the industry. Many cycle in and out, beaten down by the work but desperate for the fat paychecks.
A punishing pace takes heavy toll on workers
Abey Bonifield took her first RV job because she needed more money than she could earn cleaning houses. Bonifield worked for multiple RV makers over about six years. Every day, she hit the ground running long before the crack of dawn, sometimes working for 13 hours a shift. She installed windows alone. She hefted appliances half her weight over her head. She pulled a small RV on a dolly by herself.
“I mean, who can wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and work themselves like that?” Bonifield said. “That’s not meant to be.”
She brought home enough to live a middle-class life without a college diploma and raise her two sons. In the process, Bonifield pushed her body past its limit. She worked even when she was sick or injured, sprinting in the summer heat to keep up with relentless production demand. She lived on energy drinks and caffeine pills, consuming an unhealthy amount each day. The faster she worked, the more money she made.
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But the breakneck pace gave her anxiety attacks as she scrambled to finish one RV unit and move on to the next. She stopped the energy drinks and caffeine pills only after developing kidney stones.
“The money is just not worth it,” she said. “Sometimes you can bring home two grand and that’s a lot of money for someone who didn’t finish high school or college. But emotionally dealing with that … no.”
Bonifield left the industry last year. And she doesn’t want to go back.
Dreams go up in flames
Jenny Doman and her family stood beside a highway exit ramp watching helplessly as bright orange flames engulfed their brand-new RV.
Jenny Doman and her family had purchased the 40-foot-long Heartland Road Warrior, a fifth-wheel trailer and “toy hauler” made by a subsidiary of Thor Industries. The price tag was more than $100,000. Excited to enjoy the new luxury RV, they left their home in Oregon and hit the road for a trip to visit family in Utah.
But they only made it to Montana before flames engulfed their brand-new RV. The fire quickly transformed their dreams of a carefree life in their new home-away-from-home into a nightmare. The fire spread within minutes. Instead of spending the night in their new RV, Doman and her family found themselves standing near a rural Montana highway in the middle of a snowy winter night with nothing but clothes on their backs.
“There goes our fifth wheel, toy hauler, everything in it. Oh my gosh!” Doman said in a video she later posted on YouTube.
Pandemic drove demand for RVs
The desire to get away from home yet remain isolated introduced a new kind of lifestyle for many people during the pandemic. Recreational vehicles and trailers like Doman’s offered a vacation anywhere with all the comforts of home but not the crowds, costs, or hassles of commercial travel.
The RV industry—one of the biggest manufacturing sectors in Indiana—was quick to capitalize on this new and unprecedented demand. Last year, more RVs were built and sold than ever. Profits also soared to record highs.
Recalls up, quality down
Recalls became more and more common—in part because parts suppliers are also under pressure to build fast. Defective products that go to multiple manufacturers meant multitudes of recalls.
Recalls jumped even more during the pandemic years.
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Since 2020, three of the biggest RV manufacturers in the country have recalled hundreds of thousands of their products, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Companies owned by Thor Industries, the largest RV maker in the country, recalled more than 156,000 RVs this year. Forest River recalled nearly 200,000 RVs this year. Winnebago Industries recalled more than 125,000 RVs this year.
Among the problems that led to recalls: gas leaks, various electrical issues, increased propane pressure, and poorly installed awnings.
In its statement to IndyStar, Thor Industries said the quality of its units went up even as factories were producing more. The company cited its lower warranty claims for products sold during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic years. But that doesn’t account for the recalls.
Forest River didn’t respond to requests for comment. Winnebago Industries didn’t answer questions about alleged quality issues.
Shoddy work, unhappy buyers
A Hershey, Pennsylvania-based RVer bought a new 2022 unit valued at more than $100,000, only to have the generator and some other items stop working. After six weeks passed, he had no resort but to call the corporate office as he couldn’t get the manager to return his calls. Finally, he was told his warranty may have expired. After multiple calls, his unit was delivered to him in early June, but alas, not in acceptable condition. As you might expect, he wants a full refund. He’s still waiting.
Others, like John Kucharski, face a steady stream of issues that are not as devastating but add up to far more than just inconveniences. Kucharski, a longtime camper, had spent years saving enough money to buy a brand-new RV. He planned to spend his retirement years traveling the country with his fiancée.
So in December, he bought a brand new Keystone Cougar, a 40-foot trailer, and paid the full price of $80,000. But problems became apparent as soon as he brought the RV home to Mesa, Arizona.
Among a long list of more than a dozen problems: The slide-outs aren’t sliding out properly. There’s a rip on the kitchen floor. The frame of the back window is bent. The bolts that hold one of the couches together are stripped so the back of the couch falls off. The drawers aren’t opening properly.
“All these things are fixable and at some point in the trailer’s life will go wrong,” Kucharski said. “But when you buy brand new—and we’re talking about a lot of money … And to get home and see all this shoddy work.”
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The RV was sitting in a repair shop just three weeks after Kucharski bought it.
By August, a day before Kucharski was about to go on a six-day road trip, he saw the roof was coming off and large air bubbles had formed on its outer layer.
As some problems were fixed, new ones piled up.
“I don’t even know where to begin. I would be so outrageously angry if I wasn’t so disgusted,” Kucharski said in a scathing email he sent last month to Keystone RV and the dealership.
Keystone RV did not respond to a request for comment.
But no matter how angry he becomes, Kucharski said he knows not much will change.
“Manufacturers and dealers expect consumers to fall in line to buy RVs. So why make them better?” Kucharski said. “You just know you’re going to buy crap.”
It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.
—Martin Van Buren