Wanted: Fish processors need workers

Plants scrambling for help

Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Want a job?

If so, Kenai Peninsula fish processors want you.

As the sockeye salmon run peaks, plants are hustling to recruit workers, and the workers they do have are working drop-dead hours to keep up.

"They all do need workers still," said Ken Sirois, who handles fisheries jobs for the state job service office in Kenai.

"It's going to be interesting this week. It should be the peak of the run coming up."

Some processors report they only have enough people to staff one shift rather than the customary two. Some workers are putting in 16-hour days after driftnetters and setnetters pulled in heavy hauls over the past week.

The going rate for starting workers is $7 an hour, up from $6.50 last year. That works out to $140 before taxes for a double-shift day.

"They are putting in some long hours," said Rhonda Saulsberry, payroll manager at Cook Inlet Processing.

Her company has about 50 processing workers and would like to double that, she said Tuesday.

Processors are searching for workers through job service, the Internet and services that provide contract labor. As of Monday, the state's Alaska Job Bank Web site showed seafood processing jobs open all over the state, including Kenai, Kasilof, Nikiski, Ninilchik, Homer and Seward.

Rapi Sotoa is an accounts representative from the Anchorage office of Labor Ready, which provides workers to companies. Lots of processors have been calling him, and he is sending crews to the central peninsula this week. His company has been recruiting people, mostly off the streets of Anchorage, he said.

"We have a major pool," he said.

Some processors are sitting pretty, despite the labor shortage.

"We are right at enough people," said Margie Warner, the office manager at Pacific Star.

"We've been running for a month, and that's given us an edge."

Her plant in Kenai opened early, processing chums from Prince William Sound before the Cook Inlet fisheries opened. It pioneered the pay raise to $7 and offered out-of-town workers bunkhouses and a cafeteria, where they could charge food as an advance against wages, she said.

Pacific Star is not actively advertising for workers now, but still is hiring a few people off the street for vacancies as they arise. They employ about 75 processing workers this summer and only run one shift, she said.

"We are in better shape than last year," Warner said.

Warner reported that about one-third of Pacific Star's work force is teen-agers who live near the plants. The rest are adults from other places.

Other canneries, as well, are looking to young workers.

Cook Inlet Processing and Inlet Salmon report having quite a few minors on their lines this summer, too.

"They are great workers," said Saulsberry.

According to Sirois, nearby high schools may become the best recruiting grounds for seafood processors unless the economy in other parts of the country slows.

"We used to have a ton of people coming up from outside," he said.

Now wages elsewhere are relatively more attractive and the brief processing season is too short to recruit migrant workers, he said.

"We are having a tough time competing. They are just not coming any more."

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