Seafood processors relying more heavily on U.S. workers this year

Jun 8, 2017

Bristol Bay seafood processors are hiring for the 2017 salmon rush. Changes to the H-2B visa program have forced them to hire more workers from lower-48 states.

Alaska General Seafoods is one of Bristol Bay's major seafood processors, all of whom are staffing up quickly ahead of the fishing season a few weeks away.
Credit KDLG

The hiring of thousands of seasonal workers by Bristol Bay’s seafood processors is always challenging. This year some companies are looking more to the lower 48 to staff up, and the clock is ticking. KDLG’s Allison Mollenkamp has more.

Seafood employers need to fill many seasonal jobs every salmon season. In general, that process remains the same year to year. Nelson San Juan is the seafood employment coordinator for the Alaska Department of Labor. He says employers are leaning on state labor resources more than usual this year.

“A lot of them are depending highly with the seafood unit because of, well they used to use these H-2B visa, and some of them decided not to use it or for some reason they were not able to use that program this year.”

The H-2B program allows U.S. employers to hire temporary workers from overseas. San Juan says employers who did decide to use the program ran into a problem.

“The cap, or the number of limits that the employers could hire was met much quicker this year than last year for the total number of workers allowed to work in the industry. So some of the employers are struggling for that reason.”

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the H-2B visa program is capped at 66,000 employees per fiscal year. San Juan says employers have had to look for other areas to hire.

“Some of the employers, they have these programs that if their current workers are able to bring some friends and relatives to work with them, they have some bonus programs that they give to the employees.”

San Juan says some seafood companies in Alaska are looking to lower-48 states with high unemployment to find their work force.

Each Bristol Bay company approaches their seasonal hiring differently. The manager at Peter Pan in Dillingham says hiring is the biggest challenge facing the seafood industry. Peter Pan applied for the H-2B program this year, after using it successfully last year.  However, due to a change in a returning worker exemption, they say they were able to hire just a handful of workers on the program this year, and are now looking quickly to US workers.

By contrast, Alaska General Seafoods in Naknek tells KDLG they have never used the H-2B program due to its cost. With the fishery just weeks away, companies are still looking to recruit the labor force they need to process the world’s largest harvest of sockeye salmon.

Contact the author at allison@kdlg.org or (907) 842-5281.