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Iowa "Ombudsman" Program Aids Worker - Employer Communication

Beverly A. Clark and Rosalie A. Knight

Since Henry A. Wallace formed the original company in 1926 and sold 650 bushels of seed corn, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., has become the world's largest agricultural seed company. It sells millions of units of corn and other agricultural seed annually.

It is often said in the company that people make Pioneer. And the saying is true. As important as our seed products, ongoing research, and physical facilities are, it is the ideas and efforts of people that have made the company grow. The company relies on a large labor force to plant, detassel, and harvest the seed corn crop and to ensure a superior quality product. Pioneer employs 55,000 to 60,000 people to detassel the seed corn. The summer work force includes teachers, students, families, and migrant workers.

Most of the migrant workers come from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas; others come from Florida and Arizona. Those employed by Pioneer are generally good workers, but cultural differences, language barriers, and unfamiliarity with the detasseling of seed corn have at times led to frustration and friction between them and the company, as in other seed companies.

In 1989, the year after the drought in Iowa, all the seed companies planted extra acreage. They started employing a greater number of migrant workers, because the local labor force could not meet the increased labor needs. Also in that year, many of the larger seed companies became involved in migrant lawsuits. Unfavorable press coverage highlighted the difficulties. Some people expressed reluctance to have the migrant workers living in their communities. Pioneer became concerned about the friction and lawsuits and decided to take action.

New Program Developed

Pioneer wanted to find a way of helping the workers while getting the detasseling job done efficiently and effectively. The company approached Proteus Employment Opportunities, Inc., for help. Proteus had been established in 1979 as the Iowa field office of a California nonprofit organization providing employment and training services to migrant and seasonal farm workers. In 1982, Proteus was incorporated as an Iowa independent nonprofit organization. Its services have changed over the years in response to the needs of the Iowa farm worker population. In addition to its work in employment and training, Proteus provides primary health care, Migrant Head Start, housing assistance, adult education, and various outreach services.

As a bilingual service organization, Proteus offered the link that Pioneer was seeking between the migrant workers, most of whom are Hispanic, and employers. In 1990, Pioneer and Proteus created the Migrant Ombudsman Project with the goal of resolving migrant farm worker grievances quickly and fairly. The project was developed and funded in cooperation with about half a dozen seed companies in Iowa, as well as growers and farm labor contractors.

Typically, the ombudsman visits the migrant worker housing sites and leaves fliers, with phone numbers, describing how Proteus can help them. The workers may talk to the ombudsman during the visit, or later by telephone, about their human service needs, and their questions regarding expedited food stamps, locations of agencies and medical facilities, and the like. The ombudsman also listens to the farm workers' concerns about the pay they are receiving, terms of the contract for field work, or working and housing conditions.

The ombudsman serves as an impartial third party investigating worker complaints. After an initial investigation at migrant work sites and residences into problems identified by the farm workers, the ombudsman brings specific complaints to Proteus' and the employer's attention. Complaint forms are filled out and, along with other documentation, become part of a Proteus case file. Together the employer and workers, assisted by the ombudsman, try to resolve the complaints. If this fails, a legal department staff person or attorney gets involved directly with the worker. The intent is for this relatively informal action to relieve worker discontent and minimize the problems and costs associated with litigation.

The concerns brought up most commonly by the workers have been related to wages, contracts, working conditions, housing conditions, and crew leaders. Payment of wages is often misunderstood; the workers sometimes believe they have been misled about potential earnings when compared with the actual amounts received. Many misunderstandings arise simply because a person could not read the work agreement he or she was signing.

The ombudsman may already be familiar with the employer's recruiting process and be able to address the workers' concerns regarding expectations and actual disclosures. He or she may be able to answer questions about their pay stubs or other documents. If unable to supply answers right away, the ombudsman takes the questions and concerns to the employer for a response, pointing out any apparent discrepancies. The ombudsman then takes an explanation back to the workers or lets them know what the employer is willing to do to resolve the problem.

In 1992, five ombudsmen dealt with 83 situations involving contracts and wages, housing, social services, health care, subcontractors and crew leaders, supervisory methods, and transportation. Following are some examples of how the program has worked.

Success Stories

This past summer, a large crew made up mainly of men was living in an unused school converted to dormitory-style housing. Some of the workers arrived a few days before work began, either because the crew leader did not get word to them of the delay in the start date or because they decided to come up early anyhow. During the idle time after moving in, a small group of the men began drinking. That night a fight erupted, and one man ended up getting beaten and stabbed in the parking lot of the housing site. The victim was taken to the hospital, and two men to jail. The ombudsman for that area was called, as were plant personnel from the seed company.

When the ombudsman arrived and started talking with the workers, the conversation at first centered on the fight. People then began to express dissatisfaction about being idle and the fact that there was no work yet. Having anticipated this, the ombudsman had spoken with the plant manager and was able to explain that the company had contacted the crew leader regarding the delay of the start date. The company put the crew to work just as soon as the fields were ready.

After the crew began work, its members were pleased with the amount of hours they were getting. But as the season continued, other complaints arose. Again, the ombudsman and seed company plant personnel were there to listen and help. Three specific complaints were heard. One was that the workers' hands and arms were breaking out in a rash, and they wanted the company to provide salve, gloves, or both. The other two were related to treatment by the crew leader and his wife. Workers said that profanity was being directed at them and that the wife was not allowing them to drink water in the field. The ombudsman agreed to investigate, and seed company personnel followed up on the complaints.

At another Iowa production location, crew members were unhappy with the unavailability of cooking facilities at the motel where they were staying in a small town. The ombudsman and production plant personnel delivered grills and small refrigerators to the workers. The county food bank also became involved, bagging up food for each family and distributing it at the motel.

In contrast, at a production location outside Iowa (which could not be served by an ombudsman), an "open door" policy did not work well. The employer had tried to let workers know they could come to the plant to talk to the manager about any problems or that they could talk with any other plant personnel out in the fields. Unfortunately, workers were reluctant to express complaints, perhaps because they feared reprisal or believed nothing would be done about their concerns. That crew had had several complaints, but only one was brought up in time to be resolved during the period of work. A lack of cooking facilities was quickly remedied by the plant manager, who arranged for delivery of grills and small refrigerators to the families.

Other complaints - about the conduct of the crew leader and about their reported hours - did not surface until after the workers had finished and were leaving or had left for Texas. The crew felt the leader had deliberately shorted their hours and had over-recorded hours for people who worked very little or had not worked at all in the fields. In the end, the seed company had to fly a representative to Texas to talk with some of the workers who had complained. If an ombudsman had been on the spot to identify and help resolve such problems as they came up, the workers and the plant manager might have been able to avoid or correct them in a more timely manner. The trip to Texas and involvement with a legal services group might have been avoided as well.

Cooperation Essential

The success of the Migrant Ombudsman Project depends on the cooperation of the agricultural employers. Each company, grower, and contractor participating in the program signs a memorandum of understanding and contributes funds to the project. There are no service-specific charges for what the ombudsman provides.

The other important element in the project's success is the link it provides between agricultural employers and the human service agencies issuing food stamps, county relief agencies distributing food bank supplies, medical service facilities, and local providers of legal services. Improved communications between employers and public agencies, as well as among the agencies, assists each party involved in achieving its goals.

On January 23, 1992, Pioneer and Proteus received the Outstanding Practical Achievement award from the Center for Public Resources, an organization that promotes the development of alternatives to litigation. A selection panel of state supreme court judges, corporate attorneys, and other legal experts recognized the Migrant Ombudsman Project as a unique program making great strides in addressing the complaints of Iowa's migrant farm workers.

For more information on the Iowa Migrant Ombudsman Project, please contact: Beverly Clark, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., 700 Capital Square, 400 Locust, Des Moines, Iowa 50309 (phone 1-800-247-5258). n


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