Labor chief blasts proposed fish processor deduction

Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A proposed pay deduction for fish processors is under fire by opponents, including state Labor Commissioner Ed Flanagan.

Under a House bill, fish processors could deduct $15 a day from employee paychecks to pay for food and housing in remote areas like Bristol Bay, the Alaska Peninsula and Dutch Harbor.

Assuming workers log an eight-hour day, the deduction would wipe out the entire proposed minimum wage increase from $5.65 to $7.15 per hour. At many remote processing plants, workers put in up to 12 hours every day during the season.

Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, the bill's sponsor, said the deduction would correct an inequity in existing regulations and help the struggling fishing industry.

Flanagan attacked the measure Tuesday as a giveaway that would help fish plant owners at the expense of workers. Most fish processing workers make close to the minimum wage now, Flanagan said.

''I recognize (fish processors) are in a bind but to aid them by denying workers a raise in the minimum wage is wrong,'' Flanagan told the Anchorage Daily News.

Flanagan also argued that allowing deductions to the minimum wage in one industry would set a troubling precedent.

The bill seemed to have strong support among Republican committee members, including Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. Bill Williams, R-Saxman. Williams said that the Ward Cove processing plant in his Ketchikan district is considering closing.

''The fishing industry is down on its knees and we're trying to help. We're finding opposition from the (Knowles) administration,'' Williams said.

The industry first sought the measure to correct what industry representatives and Kott believe is an unfair aspect of current regulations, according to Sam Kito, a lobbyist for Icicle Seafoods.

Alaska law allows employers to deduct the costs of housing and meals for workers, even if it drops their pay below minimum wage, but only if workers have room-and-board alternatives in the community where they work. Kott said the Icicle Seafoods plant in Petersburg deducts about $20 a day from workers' wages to pay for room and board.

But regulations do not allow deductions in remote areas.

The proposed bill would correct that difference.

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