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Point of View: Lamenting the labor I love

“I believe the J1 program stunted us as an industry. Instead of being forced to grow with the economy to accommodate the changing needs of an American workforce, we found a cheap source of labor. Instead of taking the path of many American companies and moving our production to the cheap labor, we simply moved the cheap labor to us.” — Brandi O'Reagan
By Brandii O’reagan
May 05, 2013

It is early summer in this small Alaskan port town. The community is yawning and stretching from hibernation as the lifeblood of a summer salmon season begins to beat again. It is the 22nd anniversary of the beginning of my love affair with the fishing industry and the people who keep it alive. My oldest daughter turns 16 this year and will spend her first summer elbow deep in blood and slime. I am excited for her … and a little sad. 

Her experience won’t be mine.   

When I started working in seafood in 1992, there was a palpable sense of adventure. I worked with other college kids, hippies, gypsies, burnouts and others looking for a chance to start over. We came from all over America. We were comrades in the salmon season battle. We fought through 20-hour workdays, numb hands, constant cold and frequent hunger. We did it together and formed lifelong friendships. 

There was also the money. I started working for $6.50 an hour. Minimum wage at the time was $4.25. That summer I grossed about $8,500, almost a year’s minimum wage salary in just three months. Using my hours from 1992 and extrapolating them to an equivalent rate based on today’s minimum wage, I would have grossed close to $14,000 in three months.

The next year I was made QA lead at $10 an hour. I made $13,000 that summer, and I was only 19. Extrapolate again to today and the equivalence is $27,000 in three months. 

In 1992, I made enough money to buy a car, pay college tuition and take a trip. Workers were lined up outside the processing plant door 20 deep, seeking employment. At the end of the summer, I went back and spoke at my old school, Cottey College in Nevada, Mo. I was also asked to speak at Rotary meetings and chamber events. People in the Midwest were hungry for tales of Alaska and were entranced by the lure of high wages. These people were educated, motivated and innovative. They came and worked in Alaska and many of them are still my friends.

In 2013, my daughter will start work at $7.75 an hour. Minimum wage is $7.50. Subway and Safeway pay $10.  My QA lead makes $11 an hour.

Our company maintains a workforce for 11 months of the year — many of those weeks they are lucky to get 40 hours of work. In our community, you cannot live on our employees’ wages, unless you live in our employee housing. It is very difficult for a production-level employee to work here and build a future, get married, have kids and buy a house. 

Consequently, we do not have a workforce of people who are going to buy into the community, local arts, politics and the schools. Our leads and foreman — the people who are the backbone of the industry, are paid $11 to $15 an hour, a rate that hasn’t changed in 20 years. 

There is talk in the seafood industry about the crippling effects of losing the J1 worker visa program and the hardships facing seafood processing this year. I believe the J1 program stunted us as an industry. Instead of being forced to grow with the economy to accommodate the changing needs of an American workforce, we found a cheap source of labor. Instead of taking the path of many American companies and moving our production to the cheap labor, we simply moved the cheap labor to us. However, in doing so, we have lost the time and energy spent training all of those people. They will never be foremen, production managers or plant managers. We have sold our future for cheap labor today.

I hope my daughter spends this summer learning about herself, her stamina, her ability to push through weariness and physical discomfort. I hope she has some adventures Those are the benefits of this industry that don’t have a monetary value. I don’t know if she will find her passion in seafood the way I did but I do know that, unlike me, she can’t afford to make it a career choice.

Brandii O’Reagan is a seafood processing quality assurance manager and independent auditor in Seward, Alaska  


May 2013 - SeaFood Business  

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