April 12, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 15

Loss of visa work program not big impact to local processors

A State Department proposal to eliminate seafood processing from a visa program that brings thousands of foreign students to Alaska may not have a big impact on Haines area fish plants, managers said this week.

Mike Forbush of Ocean Beauty Seafoods said the change to the J-1 Summer Work Travel program should have little impact on the company’s Excursion Inlet plant, which hires about a dozen foreign workers annually who transfer from Bristol Bay. The plant hires around 400 employees each summer.

“I don’t think it will be a problem for us, at least in the immediate future,” said Forbush, Southeast regional manager for Ocean Beauty. “What’s going to happen is the quality of the people that we get to transfer is going to continue to decline, because the Bristol Bay people will have fewer and fewer people to recruit, so they’re going to have to dig down deeper and deeper to find people to fill those positions.”

The federal Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the State Department proposal, and Alaska’s Congressional delegation has argued in support of keeping seafood processing in the program or at least delaying a decision until after the commercial fishing season.

J-1 visas, aimed at promoting cultural exchange, have been criticized for exploiting foreign workers and limiting local job opportunities.

Resident Ed Lapeyri, who operated a fish processing plant at the former Lutak sawmill site, said, “When a production line is going, it’s a pretty hard job.” He’s skeptical Alaskans would fill the positions freed up by restricting the visas.

Lapeyri hasn’t processed fish here for two years and now partners with Icy Strait Seafoods of Juneau.

“I don’t know how you run a fish processing plant here in Haines without bringing in outside help,” Lapeyri said. “There’s not enough locals; they work one or two days and they’re gone, and I could never keep a crew of locals there.”

He said foreign workers made up 80 percent of his staff of about 35 employees some years, and could earn around $15,000 a summer if they picked up enough hours, but that was another challenge.

“I could never get any fish in August, and so I would get a crew up here, and they’d go a whole month with no fish and no work,” Lapeyri said. “What I did was I tried to get them jobs around town, and I brought them down here (to the Captain’s Choice Motel) and had them pick up the parking lot every day, the cigarette butts or anything else that might be in there, just to keep them busy.”

He noted J-1 students also struggled with the long, daily hours at the plant.

“The kids that I had come from Russia, they were pretty soft,” Lapeyri said. “Most of them came from wealthy families, and they had the money to come over here and they thought they were going to work 16 hours a day, and I said, ‘Hell, you can’t even work eight hours a day.’”

Harry Rietze of Haines Packing Co., the cannery at Letnikof Cove, said his business has shifted from foreign workers recently and he is “pretty confident” locals would fill in the gaps if J-1 visas are scrapped for seafood processing.

“We’ve had more luck finding local help over the last couple years,” Rietze said. “Initially, when we started the business, we had a hard time finding local kids, and since we’ve grown our business, we’ve had more local kids come out and ask to work, so it actually might work out okay for us.”

He said Haines Packing employed four students through J-1 last summer, down from eight the previous year, and the business has approximately 14 total employees seasonally. Rietze said a bunkhouse was available for the visitors to rent, and they were “really good workers,” completing tasks such as boxing, cutting, filleting and vacuum packaging.

The J-1 program handled much of the documentation to prepare students for a temporary move to the U.S., he said.

“We send them a form that’s a job offer, and their work and travel program does all their paperwork for them, gets all their visas and all that stuff figured out,” Rietze said.

Forbush said Bristol Bay relies heavily on the J-1 program due to the short season there. American college students usually return to school in August, and Excursion Inlet requires a commitment until mid-September, so J-1 students who start at Bristol Bay and are available to stay longer might seek transfers, he said.

Some 98 percent of Excursion Inlet workers sign on to return, Forbush said, and he credited on-site perks such as a gym, satellite TV and a wireless café.

“We allow families to be there, so that all helps to maintain a crew,” he said. “A dad can come up and work, have his wife and three kids live there and eat there at the facility, and there’s not a lot of plants that allow that.”