Fish processors court workers

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2001

The peak of the commercial salmon season lies ahead, and processors are still hunting for more workers.

As bait, they are offering higher wages and more flexible schedules.

Meanwhile, the fleet is sending more fish their way.

"We are definitely going to be short people. I don't see how we can catch up," said Ken Sirois, who handles fisheries jobs for the state job service office in Kenai.

Several central peninsula processors were still hiring as of Wednesday. Pacific Star in Kenai, Cook Inlet Processing in Nikiski and Inlet Fish Processors (also known as Inlet Salmon) in Kenai and Kasilof have job postings with the state.

Dante Diaz, production manager at Cook Inlet Processing, said he could use twice as many people as he has.

"I know I am just killing these kids," he said.

"We're working 16 to 18 hours a day. And it's just starting."

Diaz has been working in the field since 1992 and has seen a big change.

"The labor force just dropped dramatically after the summer of '96. ... It went from turning people away to targeting high school students."

Like other processors, his company is relying on young people from the area.

He estimated that half his crew is 16 or 17 and another quarter is 18 or 19.

To cope with too many fish and too few workers, Cook Inlet diverts the fishing boats it deals with to its other plants or ships fish to its Seward plant.

"We just struggle through," Diaz said.

Inlet Fish also reported unusual steps to cope with the shortage. It is mass mailing solicitations. Box holders have been receiving postcards with a help-wanted message stating, "Uncle Salmon wants you!"

"We've had quite a bit of response from that," said Donna Allen, the personnel manager at the Kenai-based firm.

The company is getting calls from all over, including Outside, since publicity about Alaska's shortage of salmon slimers. Some people from the West Coast have come up to work. The interest has increased the crews' sizes, but the company still has at least 20 openings to fill, plus turnover in the tough job.

"A lot of people come, and they don't know what they are getting into," she said.

But for people with a positive attitude and a willingness to work hard, the fish processors are offering more than ever this year.

The base hourly wage was $7 at the beginning of the season, but now has risen to $7.25.

Last year, processing labor earned $6.50.

"We had to do that," Allen said of the raise.

Her company is also offering more flexibility, allowing people with other jobs to moonlight. For example, some fishers who crew on Cook Inlet boats are working for processors while they are ashore between openings, she said.

Her company also is coping with the labor shortage by coordinating with processors in other parts of the state that have different fishery schedules.

They are sending workers from place to place at times of peak demand.

Workers from Naknek have come to Kenai, and later in the season Inlet Fish plans to send people to Bethel, she said.

"That works pretty good if you can have another company work with you," she said.

Whether the recruitment and the juggling will be enough to meet staffing needs at the peak of the season remains to be seen. As the fish runs grow over the next couple of weeks, area processors will be counting people as anxiously as they count fish.

Cook Inlet's Diaz said he is bracing for the weeks ahead.

"If the inlet hits hard, we'll be hurting," he said.

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