VENTURA, Calif. (7/15/13)--Ventura County CU in Ventura, Calif., began taking mobile banking devices out in the field two years ago to help migrant workers fulfill their financial needs. However, when it became evident in the first year of the program that it wasn't working, the credit union decided to move to use debit cards, ATMs and online banking to better meet the workers' needs.
Ventura County--about 60 miles north of Los Angeles--has 840,000 residents--including 40,000 agricultural workers. Most don't have a formal relationship with a credit union or bank, Joe Schroeder, president/CEO of Ventura County CU, told News Now.
"I got here four years ago, and went out into the field and saw how hard the workers were working and knew they were being exploited by payday loan people and check cashers," Schroeder said. "So I went to our board ... and the board got behind the program. I felt the outreach to commit to agricultural workers in the county was important."
The $628 million asset credit union partnered with the World Council of Credit Unions after seeing a presentation of what World Council did in rural Mexico with mobile banking devices.
"The idea was that we would take mobile devices out into the field and open accounts in the field," Schroeder said. "We started out with mobile devices and a change-the-world 'Walt Disney' mentality. However, it didn't work that way."
Migrants don't always know when they are scheduled to work, and when they do, it is hard to get to them. Often there is no reception for electronic devices where they work, Schroeder explained. Many times workers are paid on how much they pick, and they work hard from dawn to dusk without a lot of time for banking in the field.
So the credit union moved away from mobile devices and migrated to debit cards, ATMs and some online banking for workers at two farms: the Boskovich Farm and the Ball Horticultural Co. farm. In the past two years, the credit union has signed up 210 members at the two farms. None had previous financial relationships. "It was a dream, and we had to adapt the dream to reality--which is what you need to do," Schroeder said.
"We go to the farms where there is manufacturing and processing going on--not in the fields," Schroeder explained. "We go weekly and train the workers to use debit cards, ATMs and some online banking. Most of them want cash in their pockets or in their hands, so to get them to move to debit cards and ATMs is a big deal."
"The credit union also is attempting to encourage the workers to save more," Natalie Bradley, Ventura County CU community development manager, told News Now. So far, of the 210 workers in the program, one has saved $11,000, seven saved $5,000 each, three saved $4,000 apiece, and seven each have saved $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.
"We've impacted these members for the rest of their lives by giving them a chance to be a financial partner in the community," Schroeder said. "We are working with them to get IDs, save money, and send money back to Mexico. So we help them avoid the abuses of check cashers and payday lenders."
One hurdle the credit union must overcome every day is trust. "They don't trust financial institutions because of the abuse from check cashers and mobile check cashers," Bradley said.
"You have to have the right people out there who understand what migrant workers' sensibilities are and what they are going through--someone whom they can relate to and trust," Schroeder said.
The program is not profitable. The credit union has invested roughly $100,000 in it since its inception, including hiring one additional staff person, he added.
"We've made a commitment that is not insignificant," Schroeder said. "We're still refining it and still trying to keep adapting. Our mission is the same: We need to help people in the community and we will keep helping them."
Ninety percent of the workers at the Boskovich Farm facility are members of credit unions. "We need to make the investment and commitment--and then trust will come. We are in it for the long haul," Schroeder concluded.
[Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of special reports about credit unions' outreach efforts. See related News Now story, Special Report: CUs Innovate To Reach Out To Communities.] Awareness is one of the tenets of the Credit Union National Association's and the state credit union leagues' Unite for Good campaign toward "Americans choosing credit unions as their best financial partner."