Don't squeeze the state's minimum-wage workers

Posted: Friday, April 04, 2003

The Alaska Department of Labor is pushing a new regulation that will allow employers in remote areas of the state to deduct housing and food from a worker's paycheck, even though this results in the wage being below the minimum of $7.15 per hour.

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Under Alaska law (8 ACC, 15.160), a written agreement for deductions is not valid if it would have the effect of reducing an employee's wage rate below the statutory minimum wage. A subparagraph of this section permits deductions for room and board, but only if there are alternate public board and lodging facilities available to the worksite. The new regulation would eliminate that provision. This change would have the effect of permitting an employer to deduct housing and food, in remote areas, even if this resulted in the pay dropping below the minimum wage.

Let's say you make $7.15 an hour for eight hours work or $57.20 per day. Before the new regulation, your employer had to pay you the $57.20, if you were working in a remote area, and in addition, you got a bed in a trailer, bunkhouse, or a ship's berth, and something to eat because this was a necessity for the employer and you.

In an Empire article dated March 13, Con Bunde, a legislator from Anchorage, supported the new regulation. He said, "the amount they charge for room and board, you and I would be happy to find a place that cheap."

In the same article, the Department of Labor indicated that it did not expect to allow employers to deduct more than $10 or $15 a day for housing and food. So subtract $15 from $57.20 and you have $42.20 for an eight-hour day, just a dollar above the federal minimum wage rate, of $5.15 per hour.

Let's be clear about this. This isn't about workers who are protected by strong unions, with collective bargaining agreements. These are the workers at the bottom of the ladder, the ones who are defenseless. These are the workers who are warehoused out of Anchorage, Seattle and California to work in the toughest conditions in Alaska, other than fishing itself.

They work in the plants in Dutch Harbor and on the factory trawlers and all over Alaska in the remote parts of the state. Who can speak up for these people? Well, you would hope that it would be the Alaska Department of Labor.

When I was buying fish in Yakutat and Dillingham from 1972 to 1981, I had workers who came up each season from Seattle. I furnished them trailers to live in. They were small, with three or four men to a trailer. But I would have been ashamed to charge them a room tariff, because it was a service to me to have them there as a steady and reliable work force.

Sure, men and women will come up to Alaska for the work, because they need it. And we can write the ticket for how they will be treated, by a minimum wage law and effective Department of Labor regulation. Hopefully, it will be a system of the same fairness that we would ask for ourselves if we were working out in the remote areas of Alaska, trying to make at least $7.15 an hour.

Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.



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