On the Road with America’s Carnies

April 21, 2016

On the Road with America’s Carnies

Summer carnivals evoke images of cotton candy stands and smiling children on the merry-go-round. But the workers who staff state and county fairs all over the U.S. often fall victim to exploitation by their employers.

Many carnival workers, known colloquially as “carnies,” work shifts that can last 24 hours or more, often for less than minimum wage. Others report living in roach-infested trailers or being denied access to worker’s compensation after experiencing an injury. When moving between fairgrounds, several days can go by before the trailers where the carnies live even arrive, forcing workers to sleep on the ground.

If it rains, they crash in public bathrooms by the toilets.

A rising number of carnival workers now come from abroad, entering the U.S. on temporary H-2B visas. Most foreign carnies hail from Mexico, but others make their way to U.S. fairgrounds from as far away as Poland, South Africa and China. Many report instances of wage theft by their carnival employers in addition to substandard living conditions. This new generation of carnies often experience the same working conditions as their U.S. coworkers.

Reporter Levi Bridges spent a summer embedded in the traveling carnival industry, operating amusement rides and running games of chance as an undercover reporter. He brought back this audio diary about his personal experience becoming a carny.


REPORTER: Levi Bridges

PHOTO CAPTION & CREDIT: The Carnival at Nightfall. Photo by Levi Bridges.

MUSIC CREDIT: Tom Scudiero, “The Carny Song”

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