Workers flood Kodiak aid agencies

Social services stretched while employees wait for cannery to open

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2005

KODIAK - Cannery workers imported from Anchorage but not yet working are putting stress on Kodiak's social service agencies.

About 80 cannery workers arrived by ferry Wednesday to work for Western Alaska Fisheries.

With processing a few days away and paychecks even further down the line, the cash-strapped workers were seeking food and shelter through service organizations.

Don Merila, director of The Living-Room, a Christian day shelter, said they normally feed 15 to 20 people every day. On Wednesday they stretched their resources and fed 50 to 55. Most workers then went to the Brother Francis Shelter to spend the night.

Western Alaska general manager Mitch Kilborn told the Kodiak Daily Mirror the cannery brought over workers to process trawl-caught cod and pollock. Cod season for trawl gear opened at noon Thursday.

"As soon as we get fish, they'll be starting," Kilborn said. "When they were hired, they knew the situation and that they would have to find a place to live in Kodiak. They weren't misled. They knew exactly what they were getting into - that they would have to find their own living arrangements."

Kilborn described the workers as younger, unemployed people that needed work, most of them with homes in Anchorage. Western hired them through the state job service.

Merila said his shelter has received food from churches but he expressed concern about the situation.

"The canneries bring them here and they don't supply any housing for them," he said. "One of the (workers) had a bulletin in his pocket that said, 'Come to Kodiak. You can stay at the shelter.' This happened last year, but not on this scale."

Merila said his shelter would have sufficient food through Friday but would assess the situation day by day.

Brother Francis Shelter director Monty Hawver called it one of the most challenging situations the shelter has faced in 13 years.

"People usually trickle in and trickle out but in this case they all arrived in one day. Fifty people came in who don't know the ropes."

Usually "regulars" let newcomers know what the shelter rules are. The shelter fed the 50 or so extra people "a good solid meal," and breakfast, but Hawver said having so many extra people is not a sustainable situation.

"Poverty promotes poor choices. They made a choice to come here for work but they have no resources. When they start working, they may not be able to buy breakfast and lunch, and they will get off too late for us to feed them. They made choices that weren't well thought out," Hawver said.

Kilborn said Western Alaska's motivation was to hire Alaskans.

"Last year when we had the Turkish workers here, the state of Alaska did not like that. We had a meeting with the commissioner of the Department of Labor in Seattle during the Fish Expo last year. They asked us not to bring those people back and they would help us to get workers.

"With the way the fisheries have been going, we don't have enough workers. We haven't been able to keep a local work force. They have all left town."

Western Alaska production and personnel manager Gabriel Saravia flew to Anchorage last week and interviewed people for cannery jobs. The company offered $8 per hour plus transportation to and from Kodiak. He said he made it clear to them that there would be no housing.

"The people were young and willing to work. I have been helping them to find apartments here. I called the Brother Francis Shelter and asked them what they needed and delivered them coffee cups, cream, sugar and cod fillets.

"It's a good thing for the city. We need more fish processed in Kodiak but we need more labor. The workers will spend money here. Thirty or 40 have already found a place to stay," Saravia said.

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