House Bill 504 wrong way to fix what's ailing state's seafood industry

Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Gov. Tony Knowles did the right thing when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed seafood processing plants to dock workers for room and board.

House Bill 504 would have let processors deduct $15 a day for meals and lodging, a practice that has been banned since the first days of statehood.

The seafood industry is desperately in need of a helping hand, but the solution should not come on the backs of the lowest paid workers.

Seafood processors make minimum wage, just $5.65 an hour. The bill wouls have cost them almost half of that during a 40-hour workweek.

What's more, the bill unfairly targeted a vital component of the state's workforce. In January, some 14,000 workers will get a pay raise under the new minimum wage law to $7.15 an hour. Seafood workers also will get that increase, but HB 504 would have taken it away to pay for lodging.

As the industry has fallen on hard times and the state economy grows more uncertain, the profile of the average cannery worker has shifted. Processing plants are no longer stocked with college kids seeking temporary employment to fund a summer in Alaska. The average seafood worker is 34 years old, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

More than 700 western Alaska residents worked for seafood processors in 2000, and the percentage of Alaskans grew from 24 percent to 30 percent between 1994 and 2000.

The salmon industry has struggled against the success of the international farmed salmon industry. It is failing miserably. It needs solutions.

But it needs long-term fixes that take the big picture into account. The Legislature and the industry should find a more creative answer to the plight that troubles Alaska's fisheries.

Alaska Newspapers Inc.

July 11

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