Slime lines draw more teens

Change in laws, shortage of employees leads to younger staff

Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2000

KASILOF -- Fish guts lack glamour. But they are the ticket to big money for Kenai Peninsula teen-agers willing to endure the demands of fish processing work.

A growing percentage of the workers processing salmon this season on the central peninsula are minors, and for many it is their first foray into the world of paid labor.

Christie Utrup, a 16-year-old junior at Soldotna High School, is one such worker, employed in the Inlet Salmon roe room in Kasilof this year.

For her, the choice of the job was pretty much a foregone conclusion: Her dad is the plant manager, and this year he is shorthanded.

``I thought I'd come out and help him a bit,'' she said, during lunch hour in the plant break room.

Although her father works in the business, she was unfamiliar with the daily work -- and she wasn't sure what to expect.

``I didn't know how long I would stick around or what exactly I would be doing,'' she said.

What she is doing is spending her days -- and much of her nights -- becoming familiar with neon orange fish eggs.

The process involves removing sacs of roe from the salmon during the gutting phase and putting it in vats of brine, said supervisor Sonja Barbaza. Trained technicians from Japan grade sacs, while workers weigh the eggs and package them in boxes for export to the Japanese gourmet market.

The processors used to avoid hiring teens because laws limited the number of hours and days they could work. But several years ago the laws changed so that, if parents permit, they can work long summer hours, Barbaza said.

The long hours in all parts of the plant are grueling for workers of all ages.

Utrup said she doesn't even try to count her hours anymore and complained that her feet get tired. Other young workers complain of hand and arm strain. Fatigue is a given.

Over the past week, Utrup and others have been working 12- to 16-hour shifts to keep up with the peak of the run. In the process, they earn $7 per hour and time-and-a-half for overtime.

The money's nice, but the long hours cut into the free time usually associated with summer vacation.

``Most of my other friends work at other canneries, which is why I don't see them,'' Utrup said.

Utrup admitted that although she misses her school friends, she is enjoying the people she meets at the cannery. And, with the exception of crashing her car into a moose on the way home from work, she said the job has been a positive experience.

``I'd rather do this than school,'' she said.

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