The state House narrowly approved a bill Thursday that would let remote seafood plants deduct room and board from workers' pay - even if that means the pay falls below the minimum wage.
The House voted 21-13 for the bill after a debate in which supporters argued that the struggling seafood industry needs help. Opponents said that help should not come at the expense of low-wage workers.
Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, said workers may not have jobs at all without the break provided in House Bill 504.
"It's more than a distressed industry. In some areas, the processors are just not going to even open their doors this year," Wilson said. "It will make a difference whether some people will have jobs or not, not only the people who work on the slime line, but the fishermen."
Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat, said the industry may need help, but HB 504 is not the right way to provide it.
"We shouldn't be balancing the pocketbooks of ... corporations on the backs of the poorest workers out there," Davies said. "It's just wrong. And it sets a bad precedent for how we deal with minimum wage issues in general."
The bill would let remote processors deduct $15 a day for meals and lodging, or more if the higher cost is reasonable and doesn't generate a profit for the employer.
Assuming workers log an eight-hour day, a $15 deduction would more than wipe out any benefit they would see from a proposed increase in the state minimum wage from $5.65 to $7.15 per hour.
The bill would allow the deduction only for days when employees work eight hours.
Rep. Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage Republican, said the bill has been portrayed as more onerous than it is.
"This isn't the single mother with two kids dropping them off at day care going to work at the cannery," Halcro said. Most seafood workers are college kids who choose to work in remote canneries where they can earn a lot of money working overtime and spend very little of it, he said.
Fifteen dollars a day for three meals a day and a bed is not too much to deduct, Halcro said.
But Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, said that image of the cannery worker is out of date.
The average age of seafood workers is 34, and about 30 percent are from Alaska, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
The salmon industry has been struggling in recent years to compete with the international farmed salmon industry, although other segments of Alaska's seafood industry are healthier.
Croft said that although he agrees the industry is in trouble, he does not know whether that means processors are making no money, and he has seen no data on whether the bill will make the difference between profit and loss for them.
But Rep. Bill Williams, a Ketchikan Republican, said the industry's problems are real.
"The actual bottom line is we've had processors and fishermen being closed down in Bristol Bay, Kodiak, Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska," Williams said.
State regulations already allow some seafood processors to deduct the cost of food and lodging for workers, even if that puts them below minimum wage. But that's allowed only in communities where other room and board alternatives exist.
The vote for the bill fell largely along party lines, with Republicans tending to support the bill, but a few members on both sides crossed over.