Sun Devil Labor Contractors Inc. employs about 800 field-workers in California, assigning them to farmers who need temporary help harvesting broccoli, strawberries, lettuce, and other crops.
But unlike most employers, Sun Devil, based in Santa Maria, Calif., does not pay its workers with checks. Instead, it distributes Electronic Paycheck debit cards issued by Goleta National Bank of Goleta, Calif.
Salaries are deposited into a Goleta National account each pay period. Workers, many of whom are immigrants without bank accounts, can access funds at automated teller machines or retailers that accept debit cards.
"For anyone that deals with a lot of employees, this is a wonderful way to pay them," said Sun Devil president Dennis A. Repasi. "It means no more printing of checks, no more distribution, no more reconciliation, and no more stop payments."
Many of the workers were uneasy about the program at first, but now it is popular with them, Mr. Repasi said.
Such comments are music to the ears of Goleta National Bank executives.
The bank, a unit of $312 million-asset Community West Bancshares, entered the electronic payroll business in late 1997 when it bought a majority stake in Santa Maria-based Electronic Paycheck LLC. Its goal: to make money from consumers who do not use banks.
"We saw this as a product that fit well into our strategy to invest in technology and in our desire to grow noninterest income," said Randy Shaffer, executive vice president of the bank and the holding company. "It also addressed the needs of the unbanked."
Like most community banks, Goleta National is placing a higher priority on fee income these days.
Its fee income nearly doubled last year and now makes up 55% of total income. Goleta covered 80% of its noninterest expenses with noninterest income last year - well above the industry average of 63.7%.
"Our goal is to cover all of our noninterest expenses with noninterest income," Mr. Shaffer said.
Goleta receives a fee for each Electronic Paycheck card distributed and collects fees ranging from 25 cents to $3.50 for user withdrawals, deposits, and point of sale purchases. Fees are not assessed, however, on transactions made at Goleta National ATMs or with Goleta's retail partner, Lucky Stores Inc.
About 6,000 cards have been distributed to three dozen employers. That is well short of the 15,000 to 20,000 cards needed to make the program profitable, said Douglas King, who founded Electronic Paycheck LLC and is president of the Goleta unit.
But observers expect the bank to reach that target by yearend.
"If they can sign up one or two more of those multilevel marketing firms, they could easily reach 20,000," said Hans Schroeder, an analyst at Hoefer & Arnett in San Francisco.
Multilevel marketing companies are among Electronic Paycheck's main targets. It recently signed up Kinetic Resources Inc., a Costa Mesa, Calif., seller of prepaid telecommunications and fuel services that employs 3,000 distributors nationwide.
Electronic Paycheck evolved out of a card developed in 1994 for workers in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Recognizing that many Kazakhstan workers were reluctant to open bank accounts, Mr. King introduced debit cards that gave workers access to cash through a network of ATMs and retailers.
Now, with the resources of a bank, Electronic Paycheck is developing products beyond payroll cards.
It is test marketing high-tech kiosks for cruise ships, whose employees are often away from home for weeks at a time. The employees could use the kiosks to access and transfer funds with cards developed by Electronic Paycheck.
The company has also developed point of sale terminals for pawn shops and payday lenders. Instead of dispensing cash to consumers, shop merchants hand out payment cards loaded with a quick swipe through the terminal. The machines - currently in six shops throughout Southern California - reduce the need for pawn shops to carry cash.
"There's a tremendous market for this that I didn't even know existed," Mr. King said.