Seafood processors feeling a labor crunch from the loss of J1 student workers will be keeping an eye on Congress this summer. The Senate will soon take up legislation that creates a visa category specifically for the fish processing industry. Senator Mark Begich is leading the push to create the H2O visa. Senators will discuss the visa in a much bigger debate: that of broad immigration reform. Begich said the senate will begin on the issue around the second week of June.
"We have language in that legislation to ensure that the fishing industry, once they have exhausted employment opportunities for people in the region, verified I believe by the Department of Labor, they can then utilize workers from outside of the country to fill those spaces. This we believe answers the problem and challenge that the fishing industry has had in ensuring they have the workforce as they need it. But the first priority is ensuring that anyone living in that region or community who wants to work in that industry has the availability to work. If that is exhausted, then they'll be able to import workers," said Begich.
Begich said unions are happy with the H2O’s hiring process. Labor groups have taken issue with other language within the immigration package that calls for importing up to 15-thousand workers a year to work in construction industries.
"Labor has a problem with that language. Not with ours. We have not heard pushback on our front. We've tried to work the language to balance the needs of making sure you have a workforce ready and available in the region. When that's exhausted, we have to keep the industry moving. The way you do that is, as in the past, we've had to bring people in," said Begich.
The State Department ended the J-1 program for food industry workers in November of last year. The J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program was intended for students to participate in a cultural exchange. Concerns about the summer work program were raised last year regarding safety and work conditions in the lower 48. Around 4,000 foreign college students work in the Alaska seafood processing industry during the summer months. Processors have warned that without foreign workers, they would have trouble filling the slots to keep the lines running.