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Fish plant workers in remote parts of the state could get smaller paychecks under a rule change proposed by the Murkowski administration.
The regulation change would let remote fish and other plants deduct room and board, even if that brings workers' pay below the state's minimum wage. Former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that had a similar effect last year.
Greg O'Claray, commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the change will level the playing field between remote and nonremote plants. It also will help the struggling fishing industry, which has been hurt by competition from farmed salmon from Chile and other countries, O'Claray said.
"We're very concerned about the fishing industry and its problems," O'Claray said. "The governor is trying to grow the economy, and this particular regulation is seen as a detriment to making those businesses viable."
Some legislators said they oppose the change, but are skeptical they can stop it.
"It's the same old thing of trying to pass the cost of business onto the backs of the workers," said Rep. Harry Crawford, an Anchorage Democrat.
Crawford said he's not sure the change can be made by regulation. But if it does require legislation, he said such a bill would easily pass.
Sen. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican, said he would sponsor legislation if needed.
"The bill we looked at last year, I think, protected workers adequately," Bunde said. "The amount they would charge for room and board, you and I would be happy to find a place that cheap."
O'Claray said the department prefers to make the change through the regulation process because it can be done faster, with the new rule in place by mid-May before most workers are hired for the salmon season.
State law and regulations allow employers to deduct room and board from workers' checks if they work in a place where alternative lodging is available. But the regulations don't allow the deduction in remote sites where workers have no choice but to stay in company-supplied housing.
The proposed rule change simply deletes the prohibition on making deductions for room and board at remote sites.
State regulations allow deductions based on the "reasonable cost" of room and board, with the department deciding what is reasonable. O'Claray said he does not expect the department to allow much more than $10 to $15 a day.
Federal rules would prohibit an employee's net pay from falling below the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, he said. The state minimum wage is $7.15 an hour.
Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat, said unlike the bill that passed last year, the rule change applies to all remote workers, not just cannery workers. He also worried there's no minimum requirement employees work an eight-hour day. Employees could be charged when no fish are coming in and they're not making any money, he said.
O'Claray said a provision requiring an eight-hour day before the deduction could be made might be added to the regulation.