Lawmakers to quiz Department of Labor over its handling of COVID-19 related safety

Anchorage Democratic Reps. Ivy Spohnholz and Zack Fields.

House lawmakers will be questioning a Department of Labor director Wednesday evening over its handling of COVID-related safety violations at two seafood plants. 

“This is a fact-finding hearing. We wanted to give the Department of Labor an opportunity to explain how it made these decisions that seems to be unprecedented in terms of blocking enforcement of workplace safety laws,” said Anchorage Democrat Zack Fields.

He and his Labor & Commerce Committee co-chair scheduled the meeting after whistleblowers leaked documents to them showing that Department of Labor commissioner Tamika Ledbetter blocked about $450,000 in fines that her agency’s inspectors wanted to levy against Copper River Seafoods. 

Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter during a press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic on April 3, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Alaska Governor's Office)
Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter during a press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic on April 3, 2020, in Anchorage. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Alaska Governor’s Office)

Those inspectors say the company didn’t protect its Anchorage workforce from COVID-19 — a claim the company has denied since the inspection records became public. 

Ledbetter blocked the huge fine proposed for Copper River Seafoods, saying there wasn’t enough evidence or precedent to charge the company willfully violating COVID-19 safety standards. 

She also threw out citations for other safety violations inspectors found. Including a repeat violation of a safety hazard the company had already been cited for after an employee lost most of an arm at a plant in Bristol Bay in 2018. 

The company’s legal team, including former Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, has also objected to having safety violations litigated in a public hearing rather than in confidential meetings with the Department of Labor.  

“… we ask that you focus on the work within the department related to investigations as a whole, and not on the Copper River Seafoods’ investigation where you have incomplete knowledge as the investigation is and should remain confidential,” they wrote in a letter to lawmakers. 

Ledbetter also denied her inspectors’ request to fine Juneau’s Alaska Glacier Seafoods more than $130,000 for COVID-19 safety issues. She will not be answering questions from lawmakers during the hearing, as an assistant says she is out of town and can’t call into the meeting. 

Fields has strong ties to organized labor and works outside the Legislature for a laborers union. He and Anchorage Democrat Ivy Spohnholz also say they’re concerned about the Dunleavy administration retaliating against the whistleblowers who exposed the canceled fines. 

“We heard from employees within the department that high ranking political appointees in the department were interrogating civil servants trying to figure out who the whistleblowers were and it seemed the intent was to retaliate against whistleblowers,” Fields said.

Alaska’s Whistleblower Act blocks employers from retaliating against state workers who report to public bodies on matters of public concern. Still, Fields says the whistleblowers are concerned about losing their jobs. 

“But they’re also concerned about enforcing the law and protecting Alaska workers on the job and I think anyone who’s a whistleblower is doing something in the public interest that does put themselves at some risk and that’s precisely why we have whistleblower protection statutes,” Fields said.

The Attorney General’s office has also weighed in, asking lawmakers to turn over any evidence of wrongdoing so that it can be investigated by the Department of Law. 

The Labor & Commerce Committee will meet at 5:45 p.m. The meeting will be streamed online.

Rashah McChesney

Daily News Editor

I help the newsroom establish daily news priorities and do hands-on editing to ensure a steady stream of breaking and enterprise news for a local and regional audience.

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