Room and board could come out of remote workers' pay

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Fish plant workers in remote parts of the state could get smaller paychecks under a rule change proposed by the Murkowski administration.

The regulation change would let remote plants deduct room and board, even if that brings workers' pay below the minimum wage. Former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that had a similar effect last year.

Greg O'Claray, commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the change will level the playing field between remote and non-remote plants.

It will also help the struggling fishing industry, which has been hurt by competition from farmed salmon from Chile and other countries, O'Claray said.

''We're very concerned about the fishing industry and its problems,'' O'Claray said. ''The governor is trying to grow the economy, and this particular regulation is seen as a detriment to making those businesses viable.''

Pro-labor legislators said they oppose the change, but are skeptical they can do anything to stop it.

''It's the same old thing of trying to pass the cost of business onto the backs of the workers,'' said Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage.

Crawford said he's not sure the change can be made by regulation. But he believes if the change does require legislation, such a bill would easily pass the Republican-controlled Legislature since it did last year.

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, said he would sponsor legislation if that's necessary to make the change.

''The bill we looked at last year, I think, protected workers adequately,'' Bunde said. ''The amount they would charge for room and board, you and I would be happy to find a place that cheap.''

O'Claray said the department prefers to make the change through the regulation process because that can be done faster, with the new rule in place in mid-May before most workers are hired for the salmon harvesting season.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said he's concerned that unlike the bill that passed last year, the rule change applies to all remote workers, not just cannery workers. He also worries there's no minimum requirement that employees work an eight-hour day.

Theoretically, employees could be charged room and board when no fish are coming in and they're not making any money, Guttenberg said.

O'Claray said the regulation would apply to workers in any industry. It does not require workers to put in an eight-hour day before the deduction can be made, but O'Claray said that might be added depending on public testimony.

''I'm not certain at this point how we will handle that,'' O'Claray said. The department might just deal with companies individually on the eight-hour day issue, he said.

Current state law and regulations allow employers to deduct room and board from workers' checks if they work in a place where alternative lodging is available. But the regulations don't allow the deduction in remote sites where workers have no choice but to stay in company-supplied housing.

The proposed rule change simply deletes the prohibition on making deductions for room and board at remote sites.

The state regulations allow deductions based on the ''reasonable cost'' of room and board, with the department deciding what is reasonable. Employers are not allowed to charge so much they would make a profit.

O'Claray said he does not expect the department to allow much more than $10 to $15 a day. The employee would have to agree in writing to the terms at the time of hire.

O'Claray said federal rules would prohibit an employee's net pay from falling below the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. The state minimum wage went up at the first of the year to $7.15 an hour.

The public can submit comments on the proposed change through April 3. A hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m.-4:30 p.m. March 27 at the Labor Department in Juneau.


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