On campuses closed by COVID-19, seafood workers trade freedom for paychecks

OBI workers line up to enter the local grocery store, the Trading Union. Technically off campus, they had one hour to shop there each week. (Corinne Smith/KFSK)

Seafood companies bring thousands of seasonal workers to Alaska’s fishing towns every year, but this year’s summer workers were largely unseen. In Petersburg, due to COVID precautions, workers were restricted closed campuses — they were only allowed to go between the plant, dorms and cafeteria. Some workers said they felt resigned to it. Others said it felt like jail.

There are two major processing plants in Petersburg: OBI Seafoods — formerly Petersburg Fisheries, Inc — and Trident Seafoods. But before we get to the plants, we should start with the fishermen.

Nick Rahaim is a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat. During the pandemic, he and other fishermen have to stay on deck, away from the seafood processing workers who come on board to offload the catch.

“It’s been compared to the NBA bubble, like Disney World in Florida,” Rahaim said. “While it is a bubble, it’s very different because on the one hand you have people making millions, on the other you have people making close to minimum wage.”

Inside the closed campuses, workers process and can millions of pounds of salmon, halibut, black cod and crab for the market. It’s long days, but that’s why they’re here.

The seafood workers get paid $12.17 an hour, which works out to about $18.25 dollars an hour for overtime. Usually, overtime is guaranteed. They work up to 16-hour days, seven days a week, for as long as the fish keep coming.

This year’s season was defined by COVID precautions. Like many around the state, Petersburg’s seasonal workers were not permitted to leave company property.

“This might actually be worse than jail, because in jail you can actually walk around,” one worker said.

The backside of OBI dorms, and smoking tent, one block from Main St. One of a few outdoor areas seasonal workers were permitted to access. (Corinne Smith/KFSK).

I spoke with over a dozen workers about the closed campus system, and feelings were mixed. You’re going to hear from a few of them in this story, but I’m not including any of their names to protect them from potential retaliation.

An OBI human resources manager threatened one worker while I was interviewing him, reminding him that he signed paperwork saying he wouldn’t share proprietary information.

OBI management denied there was a gag order on workers or that there would be internal retaliation for speaking with the media. They said they were concerned with potential COVID exposure and worker safety. But KFSK’s numerous requests for comment or to arrange interviews with workers were not returned.

Some workers said that at the beginning of the season, they were quarantined in Seattle for a few days, tested for COVID, then flown up to Petersburg. But the workers I spoke to were only told about the closed campus when they arrived for orientation.

“I knew we had to be in quarantine, but I didn’t know … they told us we couldn’t leave,” he said. “Because the residents didn’t want to chance us coming in and bringing it in. You know we’re like, well, maybe we don’t want to get it from them,” he said.

OBI workers quarantined in two dorms across the street from the plant located at the end of Main Street, across from North Harbor.

The other OBI dorm is across from North Harbor, 4 blocks from the plant. Workers had to take a shuttle rather than walk down Main St. (Corinne Smith/KFSK

For some, what was meant to last 14 days extended to 21 days because of a potential exposure. I asked them how they passed the time. One worker said there wasn’t much to do – they slept, watched YouTube and played games, but there wasn’t any TV.

“For fun? Chess! I’ve actually become a good chess player,” he said. “Before I came here, I didn’t know how to play chess at all. And we play poker and ping pong.”

Trident booked the Tide’s Inn hotel for their workers’ local quarantine — the owner of the Tide’s Inn is also a manager at the Trident plant — and workers were not allowed to leave their rooms. There was a security guard outside, to make sure. The company provided meals, laundry and cleaning, according to management. Later, workers lived in dorms about one mile south of the downtown plant, next to Tonka Seafoods.

Trident did not respond to requests for comment on quarantine or closed campus conditions.

Both OBI and Trident decided on the closed campus plan and submitted it to the state and borough prior to the season. After quarantine, COVID protocols included everyone wearing masks, staying in smaller work groups, regular testing and temperature and symptom checks every day before starting work.

I talked with one Trident worker on his way from a coffee break at a cafeteria building about one block from the plant. That route was technically “on campus,” though we were on the public sidewalk a few steps from Main Street.

“How do you feel about the closed campus system, and having to stay on campus?” I asked.

“It’s a little bit difficult,” he said. “Because you just feel like you’re locked up. But hey, we came here to work, so. You came over here to work so you forget about everything, you’re on the move … Probably next season will be better, hopefully it’ll be better.”

Trident workers’ cafeteria is located on Main St, between the pharmacy and a pizza parlor (Corinne Smith/KFSK)

As the summer wore on, news of coronavirus outbreaks in other Alaskan plants became a warning for workers and bolstered the companies’ the need for closed campuses, according to workers. In late July, Seward reported the worst outbreak — over half of the 252 workers tested positive, shuttering the plant for a few days. There were also outbreaks in plants in Anchorage, Juneau and Kodiak, disrupting the industry for fishermen, seafood companies and workers alike.

But unlike the NBA bubble, Petersburg’s seafood processing plants were not exclusive. Employees who are Petersburg residents and don’t live in the dorms can come and go freely.

One OBI worker said he was frustrated to see local residents move freely between the plant and town, go get coffee or lunch, and therefore risk COVID transmission.

“It’s a double-edged blade, and they’re treating it as it’s not,” he said. “Because higher management people walk around without their mask, or you know, down around their neck, so it’s like, what’s the difference? And then I heard a few days ago that one of the higher management people caught a worker at the bar, and they fired him. Because he was at the bar! Like, what’s the difference between you being at that bar and him being at the bar?”

He said that to buy things like personal items or medications, all requests had to go through the human resources office. They even have to take a shuttle four blocks from the dorm down Main Street to the plant.

Trident responded to requests for comment with a statement saying that “having a monitored, secured, and restricted access has been recognized by the State of Alaska as key elements of an effective community and workforce protection plan.” The statement thanked the employees for executing it safely.

Trident dorms are hidden from the road, behind a warehouse. Workers had a small outdoor area with barbeques, and a basketball court. (Corinne Smith/KFSK)

Some workers quit outright when they learned about the closed campus. According to the workers I spoke with, some were also fired for breaking the rules, like walking a few blocks down Main Street to the ATM.

“People tend to come up to Alaska to get away from things and be free,” an OBI worker explained. “Because you know, Alaska, one of the frontiers that is still remaining. And they come up here, can’t do anything, everything’s locked down, super strict, and they have no way to relieve any stress, or anger, and it just builds and builds and builds until they finally pop and then they go home.”

Workers come from far-flung places across the U.S. and the world: Puerto Rico, Mexico, Ukraine, the Philippines, Sudan, Nigeria and others.

Many workers stayed and managed through the season to secure their paychecks, which could be up to $1700 a week. They also had a housing refund — half of the $20 per day it cost for room and board — to collect at the end of the summer, and the company paid airfare back to Seattle.

“At the end of the season, like the people you see right now, it’s the survival of the fittest,” one OBI worker told me. “The people you see right now, we had to thug it out, we had to obey by the rules and suck it up because they’re going to fire you. The littlest, like right now, they’re trying to fire people from the littlest things … But I mean, like I said, you gotta be smart, you know. You gotta be smart.”

This worker said he endured, and the paycheck made it worthwhile. Others said the benefits did not outweigh the cost. Still others said they would be back next summer, and hoped the fishing season picks up.

Two workers departing at the airport, headed back to college. They were permitted one short shopping trip to Lee’s Clothing, where this worker bought a signature bag, designed by local Petersburg artist, Pia Reilly Rogers. “I always try to support local artists,” he said. (Corinne Smith/KFSK)

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