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1993 Partnership Optimas Award ProfileBRA. Duda & Sons, Inc

June 1, 1993
Related Topics: Partnership, Candidate Sourcing, Strategic Planning, Featured Article
It has often been said that you can't compare apples and oranges. One agricultural company, however, has proved that old adage wrong. A. Duda & Sons Inc., an agribusiness based in Oviedo, Florida, has formed partnerships with other growers to share workers. The companies that DUDA partners with employ many of the company's migrant workers during DUDA's off-season. In one crew-sharing case, some of DUDA's citrus-picking and-packing employees travel from south Florida to Virginia to pick apples during the summer. In the late fall, the apple pickers join the Florida crew as they return to the Sunshine State to pick oranges and other citrus fruits.

It's an innovative arrangement that benefits the companies involved. The partnership also benefits the migrant workers who otherwise might not find counter-seasonal employment.

The crew-sharing practice, which is uncommon in the agricultural industry, isn't the only partnership that DUDA has formed. To help provide a better quality of life for employees and encourage them to seek educational goals, DUDA also has partnered with Florida's East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Head Start provides free day care for migrant workers' children. In two of the company's farming operations, the day care is provided on-site.

In addition, Head Start sponsors a mobile learning center that travels from one DUDA farm to another, and gives workers the opportunity to gain such skills as computer operations, literacy and English as a second language.

DUDA's innovative partnerships have resulted in better working conditions for employees and a more stable, educated and productive work force. For its efforts in maintaining quality relationships with other organizations to benefit itself and its workers, A. Duda & Sons Inc. has received the 1993 Personnel Journal Optimas Award in the Partnership category.

The company's roots enrich its philosophy.
Andrew Duda Sr. left his homeland, Czechoslovakia, in 1909 and traveled to the U.S. to seek a new life. After settling with a Lutheran colony near Oviedo, Florida, Duda bought 40 acres of land, and began his agricultural business.

After a few rough starts, Duda finally cashed in his first crop of celery in 1926 and sent for his family to join him in the U.S. By the 1950s, Duda formally incorporated his growing business, and his sons John, Andrew Jr. and Ferdinand joined him in its operation.

Today, DUDA grows fruits, vegetables, sugarcane and sod in Florida. The organization also operates a large cattle ranch in Florida and has vegetable operations in Texas and California.

DUDA's 23,000-acre farm in Belle Glade, for example, produces several types of crops, including celery, radishes, sweet corn, lettuce and sugar cane. DUDA supplies many large companies with vegetables, such as celery for LaChoy Chinese foods and the Campbell Soup Co. The growing seasons for these crops range from late August to the end of May.

DUDA grows and harvests citrus in an 11,500-acre grove on 27,000 acres near LaBelle, Florida. Employment can jump from 350 full-time employees to more than 1,000 workers during the harvest season.

Every seasonal and migrant worker employed by DUDA is guaranteed the federal minimum-wage rate of $4.25 an hour. However, seasonal and migrant workers usually earn an average of $5.57 an hour (including wages and benefits) working for DUDA and can earn as much as $10 an hour or more — depending on the job and the worker's length of service. Approximately 70% of DUDA's seasonal work force qualifies for the company-sponsored benefits, which include a pension plan, health and life insurance, vacation pay and a retirement plan. Employees become vested after five years of service with the company. The only difference between benefits for DUDA's full-time workers and for its seasonal and migrant workers is that the seasonal and migrant workers aren't covered by the organization's short-term disability benefits and paid sick-leave plan.

Fifty percent of DUDA's Florida work force is from out-of-state. Most (85%) of the out-of-state migrant workers come from south Texas. The other half of the workers come from the areas surrounding the company's farms. Most of the seasonal and migrant workers who work for DUDA are Hispanic. Half of the workers are resident aliens, and the other 50% of the workers are U.S. citizens.

The average seasonal or migrant worker was employed by DUDA for three to six months in 1991. Ninety-five percent of the out-of-state migrant workers who are housed in Belle Glade return to work at DUDA each year. In 1991, 532 seasonal or migrant employees had been employed by DUDA for more than five years.

Because Duda's founders were immigrants (11 family members run and operate aspects of the business), the company has made a business and financial commitment to refine and improve continuously the working and living conditions for its team members.

"Over the past 25 years, the Duda family and the company's management team have pioneered many efforts to improve working conditions, housing, benefits and living standards for our migrant and seasonal farm workers," says Stuart Longworth, vice president of HR. "We're doing a lot of things that many other companies aren't doing in the agriculture industry."

One example of DUDA's commitment to workers' quality of life is the housing that it provides to migrant laborers at a nominal cost, a choice that the company has offered since 1960. In 1991, the organization spent more than $1 million for expansion of its housing facilities in LaBelle, Florida. The facility now houses 500 workers. DUDA built a 16-unit apartment complex in 1988 that houses as many as 96 workers during the citrus-harvesting season. This commitment to offering housing to its out-of-state migrant employees ensures a work force for DUDA's future labor needs.

Another way in which DUDA has improved labor conditions is in the area of crew leaders. Seasonal workers in agriculture traditionally tend to be employees of labor contractors — usually called crew leaders.

Crew members usually move around from farm to farm and don't have guarantees of where their next jobs will be. At DUDA, the crew leaders are staff employees. Their supervisory duties are managed directly by DUDA management.

Abuses of migrant workers often have resulted from the traditional crew-leader system. At DUDA, however, such abuses aren't tolerated.

In addition, seasonal or migrant workers usually aren't eligible to receive benefits such as vacation pay, company-provided housing, pension plans and medical and life insurance. DUDA is one agricultural organization that has seen the paybacks of providing these benefits to its seasonal and migrant laborers. "We've tried to give our seasonal workers a better life," says Longworth.

When the company first decided to provide most of these benefits in 1976 (it has provided housing since 1960), few agricultural companies were providing them to their employees. Now, while other growers are beginning to follow suit, DUDA already is reaping the rewards of such practices in the form of higher productivity and lower turnover from season to season and from year to year.

"Probably the biggest payoff is in quality," says Longworth. DUDA has cultivated crews of trained professional workers who are familiar with DUDA's methods of picking and packing. "We're doing much better in the marketplace than if we had crews who didn't understand these things and who put just anything in a box to get it out the door," Longworth explains.

DUDA shares its crews.
The idea for sharing workers with another grower first emerged in 1986 during a National Council of Agricultural Employers conference. While attending those meetings as board members for the council, DUDA's Stuart Longworth, and Tupper Dorsey, vice president of Moore & Dorsey (a grower based in Berryville, Virginia), had dinner together one evening.

"We were talking about labor needs, and Tupper was talking about the difficulty in finding good crews," Longworth remembers. They exchanged information about the kinds of work their respective crews did and when their planting and harvesting seasons ran. From that conversation sprang the idea that DUDA's workers might want to work for Moore & Dorsey during DUDA's off-season.

Soon after, Longworth travelled to Moore & Dorsey's headquarters to take a look at its operations. He inspected the housing accommodations that Moore & Dorsey provide to migrant workers, toured the organization's operations and discussed compensation for the workers. Longworth was quite satisfied with what he found. He returned to Florida and asked several of DUDA's crew leaders if they wanted to meet with Moore & Dorsey managers to discuss the idea. They were interested. Ultimately, a few crew leaders travelled to Virginia to talk about the crew-sharing idea in person with the Moore & Dorsey managers. A good idea soon became a reality.

That year, approximately 25 migrant workers headed north to Virginia to work after DUDA's harvest season was finished. The next year, 25 more of DUDA's workers went. Groups of workers from DUDA have travelled to Virginia to work during the summer months ever since.

The reason that workers who harvest DUDA's crops in Florida don't travel to California to harvest other DUDA crops is that Florida and California fall within the same U.S. agricultural belts. Therefore, the growing seasons of both states run virtually simultaneously.

Tupper Dorsey also serves as his company's general manager. In addition to growing and packing apples, the company grows vegetables, grains, and has an ornamental nursery of shade and flowering trees. Moore & Dorsey employs DUDA's workers for its apple and vegetable operations.

Moore & Dorsey's vegetable harvesting season begins in mid-July and runs through the end of August and sometimes into early September. Apple harvesting runs through the end of October. The company's payroll grows from 50 workers during its off-season to more than 300 during harvesting season. Approximately a third of the migrant laborers come from DUDA. Most of the workers are harvesters, although some also work in Moore & Dorsey's packing plant. Others drive trucks or operate such equipment as forklifts.

"It has been helpful to have somebody like DUDA to help with the labor because we're assured of getting good-quality crew leaders, and in turn, good-quality workers," says Dorsey. "It has been a real advantage for us." He adds, "It works."

Because Moore & Dorsey's location is primarily nonagricultural — just 60 miles west of Washington, D.C. — the firm relies heavily on migrant labor. There isn't any local community of seasonal laborers from which to draw.

Dorsey says that one-third to one-half of the workers who travel north from Florida to work for him return each year. The advantage of hiring returning workers is that they're already familiar with job terms and conditions. They also are familiar with the area, the compensation rates and living quarters. "If you got a new crew leader and new people every year, it wouldn't be as easy to assimilate them. It wouldn't go as smoothly," says Dorsey.

Moore & Dorsey had been in business successfully for many years before working with DUDA, and the firm had been able to locate enough labor to supply its own labor demands. "However, I like the relationship that we now have with DUDA better than without," says Dorsey.

"Our function was really limited to making an introduction," says Longworth. Moore & Dorsey tried diligently to make sure that the individuals whom they introduced to DUDA wouldn't cause problems for the company.

DUDA had to be careful about whom they sent to other employers for various jobs, according to Israel Baez, DUDA's manager of employee relations. "You can't send a vegetable crew to pick apples. You have to send citrus crews to pick apples. They have similar skills," he says. "Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right match."

DUDA workers often are in high demand. "At one time, we had approximately 300 to 400 workers who went to other employers during the summer to work," Baez continues. In the past, crews have traveled to New York, Tennessee and Virginia to work for many other growers. Because of various conditions in the last few years, such as other growers not having enough work to warrant the long trips by workers, crew-sharing has tapered off with some growers. DUDA continues to maintain a strong partnership with Moore & Dorsey.

"Crew-sharing gave them a dependable work force," Baez says of Moore & Dorsey's operation. "DUDA's benefit is that it allows us to keep the crews together. It's a big advantage to workers to be able to work during the summer months instead of just sitting around," he adds.

Interestingly, DUDA doesn't hire crews from other growers. "We don't exchange crews," Baez explains. "It's a one-way street. It's mainly DUDA crews working during the summer for other growers."

Providing day care and education opportunities.
When Longworth joined DUDA back in 1981 as VP of HR, the firm already had a day-care center in its Naples, Florida, location. DUDA had donated the land and paid the utilities, while Florida's East Coast Migrant Head Start Project ran it and provided all of its operating expenses. Florida's Head Start Project is headquartered in Winter Haven, Florida, and currently operates 14 centers throughout the state.

Several years later, Head Start proposed the idea of expanding day care for migrant children at some of the company's other sites, such as its Belle Glade location. Once again, DUDA agreed that it was a good idea and donated the necessary land for the center, put in a parking lot and gave the nonprofit organization a cash donation to get it started.

The JoEllen Shannon Day Care Center opened on the grounds of DUDA's Belle Glade farm in March 1989. DUDA donated the land and pays for utilities, maintenance and other minor expenses. Head Start pays for everything else, including teachers' and administrators' salaries, equipment, meals and materials through federal funds designated especially for the program.

There also are two other day-care centers located a few miles from DUDA's operations in nearby South Bay and LaBelle, to which workers also can take their children during their working days.

At all four day-care centers, services are provided free to migrant workers who qualify. To qualify, workers must be migrant laborers and must be able to prove that they've crossed the county line or have travelled into the state from some other area to work.

The center at Belle Glade is certified to accommodate 100 children and usually runs at near-capacity. The other centers serve 60-90 children each. There are 39 center workers, for example, at the Belle Glade center. Thirty-two of them work in classrooms, the other seven are in administration or food service. The ratio of teachers to children is approximately 1:4. "They have more teachers per kid than a lot of other programs do," says Baez.

The centers welcome infants as young as six weeks and children up to 5 years of age. Kids who stay at the center get breakfast, lunch and a snack during the day. They also can participate in numerous activities.

Day care, a growing issue for most companies in corporate America, is primarily a new idea for employers in the agricultural industry. Most growers don't have operations large enough to maintain a consistent work force, making on-site day care implausible and costly. Liability expenses and operating costs also deter most smaller farms from seeking day care for their workers' children. DUDA has found that the benefits of providing day care for its migrant workers are many.

Migrant workers face grim alternatives when there's no affordable day care available. For example, many migrant workers employed by agribusinesses other than DUDA, often must leave their smaller children in the care of their older children while they go out to work in the fields. In 1990 alone, more than 60% of school-age migrant children in Florida dropped out of school because their parents asked them to babysit for their younger siblings.

Worse still, some migrant workers bring their children with them into the fields or groves. Not only are the fields dangerous, but also they don't provide the children with opportunities to pursue developmental activities. Consider the other unsettling option: migrant workers leaving their young children at home alone, without even older siblings to watch them.

Another important reason that DUDA supports day-care facilities for its migrant workers is that it increases the labor pool. Longworth explains: "By having the day-care centers available, we tend to get more people who are able to work for us." DUDA already provides housing. By having more individuals who can work in each household, the organization can hold down its housing costs.

Because of forward-thinking management at DUDA, in cooperation with Head Start, migrant workers no longer have to face these child-care hardships.

Irene Figueroa, director of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project at DUDA's Belle Glade facility, discusses what would happen if there were no day-care option available to workers through DUDA. "A lot of the workers would have to stop working," explains Figueroa. "Usually it's the mother who stops working," she adds.

Some families have as many as three children who are cared for at the center. "I think the rate around here for a babysitter is about $50 a week for one child, and they aren't even qualified babysitters. It would be cheaper for the mother to stay home than to work," says Figueroa. "Most families can't afford that," she adds.

The other benefit to workers is that they know that their children are well-cared-for and are out of harm's way. "I've seen it when there weren't enough day-care facilities. You'd see a housewife who stayed home and took care of eight or nine kids in a trailer," says Baez. "That just isn't the right environment."

"[Day care] also gets the kids started in the right direction by allowing them to take the right steps. They start learning at a young age," says Baez.

The day-care facilities are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sometimes, at DUDA's request, the centers will stay open later if parents need to work an extra hour or two.

Sometimes DUDA has to request that the center stay open for as many as two to three weeks later than scheduled. This often happens because of bad weather, which delays crop harvesting.

When delays occur, Baez says that human resources coordinates the extended schedules with Head Start administrators. "We have an agreement with them that we will subsidize Head Start's additional cost of operating the center for those hours," says Baez.

"They've got a budget that they have to work with. We understand that. It's to our employees' advantage as much as it is to the company's advantage for the center to stay open — especially in emergency situations," Baez says. "[The day-care center is] there for one reason — to provide service to migrant families who work for us," he adds.

The day-care facilities aren't offered at the company's Texas operations, because the company doesn't provide housing facilities there as it does in Florida. In Texas, most of the workers fall into the seasonal-worker category (see Definitions of Seasonal and Migrant Agricultural Workers) and therefore have access to local services that migrant workers in Florida don't have.

The partnership also benefits East Coast Migrant Head Start. "By working closely with them and assisting them in other ways, [the partnership] allows them financially to provide services in other areas," says Baez.

Last fall, the Head Start program added the Family Learning Center to its education offerings. The center, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration of Children and Families, is a customized motor home that's equipped with five individual computerized learning centers and a miniclassroom.

The traveling school follows the farm workers to three south-Florida farming communities. The van is stationed at the Belle Glade day-care center twice a week from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. On other days, the van goes to the other Head Start day-care centers. It also travels with workers as they migrate to various locations during DUDA's off-season.

The mobile center offers literacy training, adult education, English-as-a-second-language (ESL) training and prep classes for the general education diploma (GED). Students include migrant workers, their children and the day-care staff.

Older kids also can receive tutoring in various subjects, such as math. The migrant workers who attend the classes can take advantage of babysitting services, which are available at the learning center.

"This year, many workers have taken advantage of it," Figueroa points out. Approximately eight people study each evening in the van.

Families that work for DUDA also can send their children to day-care centers run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA). DUDA regularly makes contributions to RCMA, which is known as the largest nonprofit child-care provider in the U.S.

"We've been able to gain a level of productivity that has warranted the capital investments in housing and benefits that we provide to employees."

Benefits of partnerships.
It's interesting that DUDA's idea to share some of its crews with other employers came up in casual conversation. Although the idea didn't originate within the company's strategic planning sessions, it did fall within DUDA's goal to provide better working conditions for its employees.

"When we first looked at the idea of sharing crews, we felt that the main benefit would be to increase the stability of our crews. Because our crews could work for a greater portion of the year, they would tend to hang together better. We also thought that we would get the same folks back each year, rather than having them split up to find work in different directions," Longworth explains. DUDA has realized all of these initial projected outcomes and more.

Other positive side effects have emerged from crew-sharing. One was a reduction in state unemployment compensation levels.

A few years ago, the organization's rate went from the maximum state lev el of 5.4% down to about 4.6% (which is levied on the first $7,000 of employees' earnings). "That surprised me," says Longworth. "I didn't think that we were going to get there, but we did," he explains.

The unemployment premiums, however, have remained constant over the past few years instead of declining further. Part of the reason for the current standstill in unemployment insurance rates, according to Longworth, is the recession.

The savings were about $100,000 a year during the time when the rates still were falling. The rates now remain steady. Longworth hopes the unemployment insurance rates decrease further in the future.

Turnover also has declined. Substantial numbers of workers return each year to work at DUDA's farms.

The percentage of people who return each year steadily increases. Longworth estimates the return-to-work rate at 70 % to 90 %.

More than 500 of the seasonal and migrant workers that DUDA employs have worked for the company for more than five years. Many of them have worked for DUDA for more than 25 years, and some workers have been with the firm for as long as 40 years.

The partnerships also have translated into a happier, more stable and more productive work force, according to Longworth. "We have been fortunate in that we've been able to gain a level of productivity that has warranted the capital investments in housing and benefits," explains Longworth. The resulting improvements to the work force also have warranted the investment of time spent helping workers find counter-seasonal employment, and the financial support for on-site day care and educational opportunities.

"Providing these programs is something we believe in sincerely. It's something that we'll keep doing and probably improving upon as we go along," explains Longworth. "The good ending to the story is that we have demonstrated that if you make these investments, they'll pay for themselves," he says.

Longworth adds, "It also demonstrates real faith in people — that if you treat people right and share your profits with them, they'll make the company a better organization and a more successful organization."

Although creating partnerships with other organizations often requires comparing apples and oranges, the result for DUDA seems to have resulted in sweeter success — both for the company and for its workers.

Personnel Journal, June 1993, Vol. 72, No. 6, pp. 44-52.

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