Labor chief blasts proposed fish processor deduction

Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002

JUNEAU - A measure that would allow fish processors to deduct $15 a day from employee paychecks to pay for food and housing in remote areas of Alaska stalled today in a House committee.

The deduction would wipe out the entire proposed minimum wage increase from $5.65 to $7.15 per hour, assuming workers put in an eight-hour day. At many remote processing plants workers put in up to 12 hours every day during the season.

The 5-5 vote in the House Finance Committee brings the measure to a halt. Supporters will have to try again to move it out of committee.

Sponsor of the bill, Rep. Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, said he would try again next week when an absent committee member, Richard Foster, a Nome Democrat, returns to Juneau.

Kott says the deduction would correct an inequity in existing regulations and help the struggling fishing industry.

The measure is opposed by state Labor Commissioner Ed Flanagan, who attacked it Tuesday as a giveaway that would help fish plant owners at the expense of workers. Most fish processing workers make close to the minimum wage now, Flanagan said.

He also argued that allowing deductions to the minimum wage in one industry would set a troubling precedent.

The bill seemed to have strong support among Republican committee members, including Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. Bill Williams, a Saxman Republican. Williams said that the Ward Cove processing plant in his Ketchikan district is considering closing.

"The fishing industry is down on its knees and we're trying to help. We're finding opposition from the (Knowles) administration," Williams said.

The industry first sought the measure to correct what industry representatives and Kott believe is an unfair aspect of current regulations, according to Sam Kito, a lobbyist for Icicle Seafoods.

Alaska law allows employers to deduct the costs of housing and meals for workers, even if it drops their pay below minimum wage, but only if workers have room-and-board alternatives in the community where they work. Kott said the Icicle Seafoods plant in Petersburg deducts about $20 a day from workers' wages to pay for room and board.

But current regulations do not allow deductions in remote areas such as Bristol Bay, the Alaska Peninsula and Dutch Harbor.

The proposed bill would correct that difference.

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