JUNEAU (AP) Fish processors in remote parts of the state are being allowed to deduct room and board from workers' wages this year, even if that pushes their net pay below minimum wage.
A regulation allowing the practice went into effect May 16, said Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Greg O'Claray.
The companies were already allowed to deduct room and board from workers' pay in communities where alternative housing was available. But state regulations prohibited that in parts of the state where workers would have no choice but to stay in company housing.
Fish processors lobbied the Legislature last year for a bill to allow the deduction for remote work sites. They said they needed the bill to help cope with a minimum wage increase from $5.65 to $7.15 an hour that went into effect Jan. 1.
The bill passed, but then Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, vetoed it.
This year, Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration opted to simply change the rules through the regulation process, rather than going through the Legislature.
O'Claray said that allowed the change to go into effect earlier, so it would be in place for the summer commercial fishing season.
Unlike the legislation that was vetoed, the new regulation has no requirement that employees work at least eight-hour days before the deduction can be made.
But O'Claray said that is department policy and it is outlined in a memo that went to processors and to state workers who enforce wage and hour laws.
''That's what they'll use as a measuring tool for claims that come in the door or inquiries that come in the door,'' O'Claray said. ''We'll be monitoring the situation very closely because we don't want employers to take advantage of the situation.''
The memo also states that the amount deducted must be reasonable and not include a profit to the employer. It says as a general rule $15 a day will be considered reasonable.
State Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, opposed the bill last year and was disappointed to see the regulation put in place.
''It just seems to be a real assault on working people to take what we consider to be a minimum wage away from them,'' Crawford said Friday.
The regulation change applies to all remote site workers, including those in logging and construction, O'Claray said.
But in general fish processing is the only industry where wages are low enough that the deduction could push workers' net pay below the state minimum wage, he said.
However, O'Claray said, those workers often put in many hours of overtime in a week for which they are paid 1.5 times their normal pay.
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