The program has been under scrutiny on the national stage since last fall when hundreds of J-1 student workers at a Hershey’s chocolate plant in Pennsylvania walked out in protest of working conditions. Nearly six years ago in Kodiak, J-1 workers at the Ocean Beauty seafood processing plant went on strike saying their employer was deducting too much tax from their paychecks. But in the last decade, increasingly J-1 workers are how seafood processors staff their operations. Towns such as Naknek, Petersburg, Cordova and Dillingham require the influx of foreign workers as there aren’t enough locals to take available jobs.
The State Department and many in the U.S. Senate called for instant, sweeping changes after the incident in Pennsylvania last fall. Both Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich worked quickly to stave off any rushed changes. A last minute decision would have left many processors in Alaska understaffed and unable to process this summer’s salmon harvest, something that would negatively affected fishermen.
Begich says Friday’s announcement is the first step toward ensuring Alaskan hire is a priority for the industry.
"This allows us some time now to focus on that and I think that’s the step we wanted to see. It kind of has a double for us. It keeps things moving through the summer but now we can look at the long term and how do we ensure that people within the communities that want to work can sit down with the fishing industry and work."
However, local processing plant workers in Kodiak had been looking forward to immediate changes in the program. Processing jobs are hard to come by on the island and many who are employed aren’t getting full-time hours. In a job that mostly pays minimum wage and living in a place with the highest rents in the state, overtime is essential. Monte Hawver is the executive director of the Brother Francis shelter in Kodiak. He says the program takes work away from local families and creates poverty. He’s already seen many families leave the island because they’re just not getting the hours they used to.
"There’s a lot of stress on the families. There’s a lot of stress on the social services that are trying plug the dike, so to speak. It’s much harder than it used to be and it doesn’t have to if our local canneries would use local cannery workers for their work force."
The J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program was established 50 years ago and initially was used to bring academics to the United States to conduct research or to teach. The program was intended to foster cultural exchange and eventually expanded to include au pairs, educators, medical professionals and participants in the Work and Travel USA program.
Both Senators Murkowski and Begich have lauded the decision to keep the J-1 program open to processors until November, but some local workers feel that they’ve been passed over for cheaper labor. J-1 workers save employers money because they don’t have to contribute to Medicare, Social Security or unemployment insurance. Mary Guilas-Hawver is the president of the Fil-Am Association in Kodiak. She says many of her organization’s members struggle because they’re not getting enough work.
"These people are the ones who are paying their taxes here, making Kodiak their home and send their children to school here. The problem is they’re not able to make money to live and support themselves during the summer. The worst thing yet is that they’re not able to put money in their unemployment bank to use during the winter."
Senator Begich is proposing a new visa, tentatively called an H20 Visa, which would allow the industry to hire foreign workers without having to do so under the premise of cultural exchange. The specifics of the visa are yet to be worked out, but some of the J-1 program’s biggest opponents are already optimistic. They hope that the new visa will come with stricter regulations that require processors to hire local first. Senator Begich says they haven’t worked out how to ensure that, but that it’s a priority.
"Now it’s a question of how do we ensure that the processors are taking every step possible. Part of that is that they know by the end of this year that the J-1 visa is going to change. They know they have to figure this all out as the year gets closer to the end. Now there’s some breathing room. I don’t know what all those pieces are, but our office will be aggressive about trying to figure this out."
The J-1 program brings up to 5,000 students- many from Eastern Europe- to Alaska each summer.