A few processing plants are finding themselves shorthanded as salmon catches increase around the state, but an item in pending U.S. Senate legislation could make it easier to fill vacant positions next summer.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich supported language in the 2015 State and Foreign Operations spending bill that would enable Alaska’s seafood processing industry to once again hire foreign students for temporary positions through a work travel program.
The J-1 visa program grants temporary visas to foreign students interested in working, and traveling, in America. Alaska’s seafood processors were removed from the program in 2013, but language would allow them to participate once again.
The bill still must pass the Senate, and then go to the House, before the program is reinstated.
Participating students typically apply through a nonprofit that is expected to coordinate housing and job placements, and the students often work in locations where a rural location or seasonal workload makes hiring locally or domestically difficult.
According to Alaska Department of Labor estimates, about 25,000 individuals are hired by the seafood processing industry each year. In 2011 and 2012, approximately 70 percent of the workforce came from outside of Alaska.
Pacific Seafood Processing Association Vice President Dennis Phelan estimated Alaska processors will operate with about 300 to 500 fewer workers than would be ideal this summer.
A smaller workforce means the plants operate more slowly, and sometimes have to put fishers on limits, capping the amount of fish they can deliver at a time, Phelan said. That’s less efficient for both the processors and the fishing fleet, he said.
Phelan said at its peak, the industry probably employed about 4,000 foreign students through the J-1 program.
While the industry would prefer to hire Alaskans and Americans, sometimes it is isn’t possible, he said.
“If we had the option of doing full staffing of the plants from workers in the U.S., that is obviously our preference,” Phelan said.
But working in a seafood plant — even with the added intrigue of coming to Alaska — doesn’t appeal to very many college students in the U.S. anymore, Phelan said, although it used to. So companies more often turned to foreign students, who are interested in spending a summer in an Alaska processing facility.
“Alaska’s seafood processors have been having difficulty hiring the workers they need during peak summer seasons, since the J-1 program was shut down two years ago,” Murkowski said in a formal statement. “Seafood processors from Naknek to Kodiak to Ketchikan rely on this program when they cannot hire Alaskans or workers from the Lower 48, so I would like to thank my committee colleagues for understanding the need to continue this program for the next year, and Senator Begich for joining me in this effort.”
Murkowski has said that the program, which was intended as a cultural exchange of sorts, was halted because of concerns regarding how it was operating outside of Alaska, a characterization Phelan agreed with.
“We never felt there was really a justification for seafood being excluded from the program, and so we’re very happy that hopefully we will be allowed back in,” Phelan said.
Finding employees in the United States can also be more expensive than using the J-1 program.
Great Pacific Seafoods General Manager Roger Stiles said he’s been able to get the employees he needs this summer, but it’s a lot more expensive than in years past.
Great Pacific has three plants — one each in Anchorage, Kenai and Whittier — and a buying station in Kotzebue. The largest portion of the company’s product comes from Prince William Sound.
Staffing those plants is more challenging without the J-1 program, Stiles said. Great Pacific needs an average of about 275 employees through the summer, but last year, Stiles only averaged about 175 — and he went through 750 employees to get that many, he said.
“It was just a disaster,” Stiles said.
Flying up employees who don’t stick around is expensive, and understaffed plants are inefficient, so this year, Stiles said he went through a labor company in the Lower 48 to find employees for the positions he couldn’t fill locally. That’s more expensive, but so far it means he’s had enough employees to keep things running, although he said June 24 that he’d need about 70 more in the next two weeks as deliveries increased. This early in the season, Stiles said it’s hard to say for sure that his company is in the clear for this year.
Not everyone has had such a hard time. Snug Harbor Seafoods co-owner Paul Dale said his Kenai company has been able to find enough employees this summer by hiring locally and from the Lower 48. But if the J-1 program was reinstated, Snug Harbor may end up using it again, he said.
“We used to use a lot of J-1 students, and we enjoyed them very much,” Dale said.
The appropriations language would reinstate the program through September 2015, offering processors a one-season reprieve to hire the foreign students.
That’s a start, Stiles said.
“We very much look forward to the resumption of the J-1 program in 2015, and hopefully it’s extended beyond 2015,” Stiles said.
Last year, the delegation tried to reinstate the program through the immigration reform bill that is now stalled in the U.S. House after passing the Senate. That effort would also have temporarily allowed J-1 workers for the seafood processing industry, and then created a new three-year temporary visa for seafood processing and other industries in need of guest workers.
“This is something Sen. Murkowski and I have been working together on since last year’s negotiations over the immigration bill,” Begich said in a formal statement. “I’m glad we were able to convince our colleagues on both sides of the aisle of the importance of this provision, and I commend the Appropriations Committee’s decision to include Alaska’s Seafood industry in the J-1 Summer Work Travel program,” said Begich. “Until there is a comprehensive solution to address seasonal labor needs in the U.S. I will continue to use my role on the Appropriations Committee and Senate Oceans Subcommittee to fight for reforms that address critical labor shortages in Alaska’s seafood industry.”
Molly Dischner can be reached at email@example.com.