"Whenever I hear there's a migrant downstairs, I say send him up! Send him up! I have to see one!"
Melba Norris sat alone in the office, where she makes $24,799 a year as the "monitor advocate" for migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the District of Columbia, ready to work.
But Norris has a problem. The District of Columbia has virtually no migrant or seasonal farmworkers - at least not that she has been able to find.
"I've been the joke of the region on migrants, you know." Whenever the advocates from other states in this region get together, said Norris a jovial woman with the material qualities of a former nurse, "I'm the one who gets teased about earning my salary."
Norris and the nation's 60 or so other monitor advocates are part of a system dictated by the federal courts and implemented by the U.S. Department of Labor after the NAACP brought suit in the early 1970s to assure that migrant farmworkers receive all possible benefits from the U.S. Employment Service.
According to Peter Rell, director of the USES office of program review, there are now monitor advocates in every state employment service, with some states having more than one. They are on state payrolls, but paid through federal funding of about $1 million a year. Another $4.1 million is budgeted as well for "outreach" to help find the migrants and their problems.
"It's probably overkill in some places," said Rell, "but we wanted to be absolutely sure we weren't giving short shrift anywhere in complying with the court order. In some places like D.C. and Rhode Island we may have gone overboard, but the intent is positive."
In many states-Maryland and Virginia, for instance - which have transient farmworker populations in the thousands the monitor advocates may keep extremely busy.
But as Norris talked to a reporter in her office the other day she began counting on her fingers the number of migrants she has seen in the last year.
There was a group of 13 just a couple of weeks ago - Puerto Rican apple pickers who had been refused jobs in the orchards of Virginia and New York and came to Washington to protest. Norris mobilized all her resources to advise them and teach them about their rights.
"At first, I thought my goodness, what would we do if they walked in here?" she recalled, but then she went out to find them, invited them back to her office and proved, she believes, that after three years of minimal activity her system still works. But then the Puerto Ricans left leaving Norris a little wistful. Including those 13, she said, she's been a total of about 17 migrants this year.
It is not that she does not try to keep busy. There are some other duties she is expected to perform and tries to keep up with them, though she gives the impression that she spends much of her time searching for things to do.
In addition to the problems of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, since 1977 the state monitor advocates have been supposed to handle complaints about the Employment Service system in general. Many of the complaints that come to Norris's office, however, are outside her narrowly defined bureaucratic jurisdiction, so she has to refer them to other branches of the D.C. Department of Labor.
Other problems are bought to her, she said simply she has been around the building so long. Before she was made monitor advocate she had worked as an occupational health nurse, then in the apprenticeship program of the Department of Labor, and finally as an equal employment opportunity specialist.
She held the later position for about five months in 1975, trying to combine the work of monitor advocate with her other duties, but then, "The Labor Department said we don't want the monitor advocates doing anything else."
Since then she said she has tried to read as much work as she can into her job, to be helpful to anybody who has any kind of complaint about the Employment Service System, though usually she winds up referring them to some other agency because they do not fail into her official jurisdiction.
At times she seems to act as a mother confessor for people she just happens to encounter in the Employment Security Building. "I walk the halls and handle three or four. I go for coffee and two of three people catch me in the snack bar. But I'm not a formal person," said Norris, "as a matter of fact I have not had any complaints go formal."
Norris said she also studies data coming in from the various offices of the Employment Service to make sure it's accurate. In March, for instance, she noted figures indicating services to 33 migrants, but upon further research she determined that these were vastly overblown.
She visits the neighborhood employment offices in Washington to make sure they are in complaince with the migrant farmworkers regulations and asks them required questions: "Approximately how many MSFW's (migrant and seasonal farmworkers) work in this office area each year? What are the gricultural industries located in the office area? Include crops using MSFW's for harvesting." To which the answers are invariably "not significant."
And she waits. "I still have to have the system in place," she explained, "whether there's one migrant or 100,000 migrants."
She turned in her chair to look out the window of her sixth floor office in the D.C. Department of Labor. Across the street is a mission with a great white across on its road and a neon sign that says "Come unto me."
The mission, Norris recalled, sent her her first migrant couple of years ago. He was just hitchhiking through town and had lost some medicine. She helped him out and he left. "So every now and then," she said, "I look out there to see if I have any business."