On a chilly Valdez evening, George Keller sipped a cup of whiskey and Coke and hailed his new hero Capt. Joseph Hazelwood of the tanker Exxon Valdez.
Both Keller and Don Jones, his Fairbanks Teamster buddy, made a lot of money on the transAlaska oil pipeline in the 1970s and now, thanks to the March 24 tanker spill, they are getting one last taste of an Alaska boom before retiring.
For the past two weeks, Keller and Jones have worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week dispatching supplies to help clean up the 11 milliongallon spill. Their only housing has been a cramped camper pickup, but they each make $1,800 a week.
"I want to get a Tshirt made: "The Captain Solved All My Problems,' " Keller said.
On a gray afternoon in Seward, Bonnie Stevens sat in her harborside apartment and talked about how the oil spill killed her dream. Two years ago, she opened Sunshine Day Care and built it into a business that took care of 30 children a day. To do that, according to state regulations, she needed three employees. The best wages could afford to pay $7 an hour.
After the oil spill, two employees quit without notice for $16.69-an-hour jobs offered by the cleanup effort. After a frantic month of unsuccessful recruiting and a lastminute plea to the oil spill cleanup to subsidize wages, she closed the business.
"If I hadn't shut down, the state would have shut me down," Stevens said.
Hiring for Exxon Corp.'s oilspill cleanup has hit Alaska's labor market with whirlwind force, sweeping up workers from all over the state, and paying them wages akin to Alaska's pipelineera boom.
Exxon's total cleanup force now tops 7,000 workers, most of them Alaskans, the company says.
The shock waves of this massive recruitment effort have spread across the state, rippling through southcentral coastal communities and north to Anchorage and the Interior.
From Cordova, Valdez, Seward, Kenai and Kodiak, more than 1,400 residents have joined the oilspill cleanup, on the payroll of Exxon subcontractor Veco Inc. and its sister company, Norcon Inc. From Anchorage and the Matanuska Susitna Borough, 1,169; from Fairbanks, 459.
For workers, it's as if someone had waved a magic wand and granted at least for the summer the bumper sticker prayer plastered to so many Alaska pickup trucks: "Please God just grant me one more boom. I promise not to piss it away this time."
Within a matter of weeks, sleepy union hiring halls have been electrified with huge job orders. "Our outofwork list in Anchorage is as low as it's ever been since the pipeline was built," said Mano Frey, business manager for Anchoragebased Laborers Local 341. "It's a tremendous opportunity for our members."
Cleanup hiring helped knock the statewide unemployment rate down to its lowest level for April in at least 10 years.
For some Alaska employers, that hiring binge is creating a labor shortage that is taking on nightmarish proportions.
The problem is most acute in Valdez and Cordova, where the hiring has decimated local labor forces, forcing some of those who remain to stagger through 15 and 20hour days, week after week. But it is also hitting Seward, Anchorage, Fairbanks and such small towns as Glennallen.
According to state Job Service officials, the labor shortage existed even before the oil spill. But the cleanup effort has greatly intensified the shortage.
"Fast foods, technical services, hotels, sales and services, even clerical help is experiencing a serious shortage," said Barbara Stallone, an Anchorage Job Service official.
"We have had (Anchorage) employers call us in the last several weeks desperate because someone on their staff has just left to join the oil spill, and they need someone to replace them immediately," Stallone said. "We tell them there are insufficient people in Anchorage to fill the $5anhour jobs."
The competition for labor already is beginning to nudge up wages, with some employers asking Job Service to recruit $5anhour labor, but agreeing to pay more money if they can't find workers.
The competition appears sure to intensify through the summer when Veco expects to hire another 3,000 workers from Valdez, Cordova and lower Southcentral command posts. The new hires will help expand the work force, according to Pete Leathard, Veco's president.
In late April, Jon Stuart arrived in Valdez from Sandpoint, Idaho, driving a truck loaded with supplies for the oilspill cleanup. Someone told him there would be lots of hiring, so he decided to stay. Since then, hundreds of men and women have been hired from the Valdez Job Service Center.
Veco has an Alaskan hiring preference. And much to the dismay of Stuart and roughly 160 other out of state workers who have applied for cleanup work, the Valdez Job Service appears to be enforcing that preference. Computer checks determine if the applicants have earned a recent pay check in Alaska, and if not, their names aren't forwarded to Veco.
Veco claims that more than 90 percent of its employees are Alaskans, and state records indicate 75 percent received last year's permanent fund dividend checks.
With each new wave of Alaskans rolling into Valdez, Stuart's application slips further to the back of the Job Service hiring file. But he still hopes for the big bucks, and doesn't want to take a lowerpaying job in town and miss hearing his name called out on a Veco hire list.
"If you're not here when your name is called, you're screwed. So you just have to stand here and stare at the walls," Stuart said.
The frustrations of outofstaters add to the tension at the Valdez hiring hall.
Last Wednesday, a Job Service women announced a Veco request for more job applicants, and dozens of people stampeded into line. Missourian John Kennedy, an 18day veteran of the waiting game, tried to join the line.
"Don't even try it," said a Job Service woman who recognized Kennedy.
"I don't get it. I'm a U.S. citizen," Kennedy fumed.
Down the hall, an outofstate Vietnam veteran signed in at Job Service, and another woman informed him that all state residents, even non veterans, have first hire preference.
"I thought when I served my country, that included Alaska," the veteran said.
In recent weeks, the waiting time for most Alaskans has ranged from a few days to two weeks. Once on the cleanup payroll, many end up with shoreside work. They may build cages for oiled otters, staff warehouses or clerk at Veco offices.
Others, such as Robert Grady, go to sea to clean beaches or rescue wildlife. Grady is an Anchorage laborer who said he worked a $6anhour North Slope job last winter. Late last month, he hitchhiked to Seward and found work as a crewman on a 28foot birdrescue boat. He worked 18 days straight, often for 12 hours or longer, sharing a single bunk with another crewman.
Most birds Grady managed to grab were already dead, and their guts often spewed out as he picked them up. "The smell was so bad you'd spend half the time with your head over the side puking up," he said.
His paycheck helped ease the pain. For the 18 days of sea, often working at least 12hour days, he says he grossed $5,800.
Grady and others with atsea jobs are assured some type of lodging in boats or floating motels anchored in oily Sound coves.
Not so many of the onshore Valdez workers. They are forced to homestead vacant lots, creating Alaskastyle shanty towns of RVs, aging school buses, camper pickups, old vans and tents. For some, shelter is a simple sheet of black plastic strung on a frame over wooden pallets.
A quick Wednesday survey of the illegal squatters counted 93 tents, 87 trailers and 137 RVs just in the downtown area, according to Doug Griffin, Valdez city manager.
"We're not telling people to move, because there is nowhere to go," said Griffin. All the official campgrounds are full.
The influx of workers has caused the police workload to skyrocket. Arrests in April were 500 percent above a year earlier and higher than even the pipeline construction peak, according to police statistics.
There are also problems on the job.
Some workers complain of mass confusion and incompetent and arrogant supervisors, some of whom lacked even tide books or proper charts to help coordinate operations.
"It's not so much the work; they treat you right in some ways," said a Copper Center worker. "But you had 14 guys telling you what to do, and after a week, you don't even know who's your foreman." The worker said he finally quit when he was transferred to a new boat and no one knew, by 11 p.m., if there was any bunk space for him to sleep.
Others complain of squalid living conditions. Workers have lodged complaints with the Labor Department about puddled bathrooms, crowded bunks, lack of laundry service and flu epidemics aboard the USS Juneau, a Navy ship that serves as a floating hotel.
Since the spill, 11.6 percent of Veco's and Norcon's work forces have quit, been fired or laid off, according to company statistics.
But for every worker who quits the cleanup, plenty are eager to take his place.
Last Wednesday in Valdez, more than 100 workers from the downtown Job Service were shipped out to sea on an Exxonchartered boat. Thursday morning, another hundred people assembled in front of the office.
MidMay looked like the start of a busy season for Sea Hawk Seafoods, a Valdez fish processor that prides itself on instate recruiting.
Both halibut and sockeye salmon openings were scheduled for May 15, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish were supposed to flow through the plant. So Sandy and Ray Cesarini, the owners, put out a call through Job Service for 150 workers.
They got 73 applications, but on the day the plant was supposed to open, only eight showed up. That didn't matter because no fish showed up, either.
Tender boats that were supposed to carry the salmon to Sea Hawk from the fishing grounds all abandoned the plant in favor of Exxon charters. Another fisherman had promised to bring back halibut, but on the opening's eve, Sandy Cesarini sayd the crew mutinied, and went to work on the oil spill.
The Cesarinis still hope to process part of the record salmon runs expected this year in Prince William Sound. But they fear the labor shortage triggered by the spill cleanup will continue to paralyze their operation.
"We're wondering what our future is, and it's driving me crazy that I don't have any control over it," said Sandy Cesarini.
She is not alone. All along the southcentral Alaska coast employers are wondering how, and sometimes if, they will survive, this latest Alaska boom.
Many are shellshocked as onceloyal employees abandon them for the big cleanup bucks. Restaurants. Motels. Grocery stores. Hospitals. Even a few city agencies. All are struggling to retain those workers they have, and find replacements for those lost.
Late one night at The Reluctant Fisherman, a Cordova hotel, Margie Johnson sat at a rear bar table and talked about a neverending stream of workers lost to the cleanup. Bartenders, waitresses, chamber maids all had left, and new ones stayed for only a few days before going to work for Veco.
As of last week, her 50person staff had shrunk to 38 people. "These are tough times," Johnson said.
She excused herself from the interview and went to the kitchen to talk with restaurant manager Ted Hilgart, who had been working 20 hours a day.
She returned a few minutes later.
"Two more waitresses just bit the dust," Johnson said. "It's awesome."
Jeff Bailey, owner of the Killer Whale Cafe in Cordova, said last week he's about to shut down the operation. Perhaps next year, if things calm down, he will start over.
At the Cordova airport, Wilbur's Inc. has lost three of its four station employees. That's left Charlotte Legg, the station manager, to load and gas up the airplane, haul mail, chauffeur passengers and ticket them.
"I've had people so angry that I've been sworn out, I've been spit at. The stress level is so bad that normally nice people are screaming because I just can't do it all," Legg said.
"There's not one enterprise in town that's not affected by this," said Erling Johansen, Cordova's mayor.
A Chamber of Commerce survey completed this week of more than 50 of the town's businesses indicated 199 employees have been lost to the spill.
So far, 19 businesses have raised wages in an attempt to keep workers. Some, such as Johnson, pay bonuses instead.
In Cordova and Valdez, companies that traditionally have relied on instate recruiting are hit hardest, since Alaskans have first claim to the spill cleanup jobs. These businesses hope that a seasonal summer influx of Lower 48 jobseekers will help to ease the job crunch.
But at least for now, the lure of the spill cleanup money is keeping most outofstate workers hanging around the Valdez job hall. Of those who have arrived so far, few are willing to settle for lowerpaying jobs in the processing and service industries.
"We just came up here like the gold rush people with a dream," said Dan Pena, who drove to Valdez from Rochester, Minn., with his friend, Ron Petersen. "If there's no chance of (cleanup) work we can just go home."
Even if Lower 48 arrivals begin to opt for intown jobs, some positions, such as those in social services, will still be tough to fill.
Harborview Developmental Center, a large institution serving the mentally handicapped, has lost 20 of its 139 workers. Many left without even giving two weeks notice. A few blocks away, Horizons Unlimited, a private nonprofit residence for mentally handicapped, has lost half of its 10 workers.
"The people we want are those with a longterm commitment, and there's no housing here, so they're not going to locate here," said Jan Michaud of Horizons.
To help keep their doors open through the cleanup boom, some Valdez, Cordova and Seward businesses have sought wage subsidies from Exxon.
So far, that's something Exxon won't consider, said company spokesman Fred Davis.
And just how long will this cleanup effort last?
"Those plans haven't been laid down yet," said Leathard, Veco's president. "We're not just going to end it on a certain date. We're going to have to have a big demobilization effort, and some activity during the winter."
But eventually, like a junkie breaking a crack habit, Alaska will have to kick free of Exxon money. At least in Valdez, another bust is bound to follow.
In the meantime, at least a few people already are squandering their newfound wealth.
On the way to Valdez airport, taxi driver Jim Watkins talked about three cleanup workers who each cashed $1,100 weekly paychecks. They all had a wild night in the bars. Lots of drinks on the house.
"The next morning, they were bumming money from me for breakfast," Watkins said.