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Business/Economy

Rat-infested dorms, contaminated drinking water and wage theft: Lawsuit alleges nightmare conditions at Alaska seafood processing plants

  • Author: Paula Dobbyn
  • Updated: 3 days ago
  • Published November 19

Update, 9 a.m. Dec. 1: North Pacific Seafoods Inc. released a statement saying the Seattle-based company works hard to maintain excellent working and living conditions for all employees.

“The health and safety of our employees is our highest priority,” the Nov. 25 statement reads.

Hundreds of employees, including one of the two named plaintiffs in the recently filed lawsuit, choose to return to work for North Pacific Seafoods year after year for multiple seasons, the company said, including at the Red Salmon seafood plant in Naknek that’s referenced in the suit.

“We regularly evaluate conditions at our facilities as part of our continuous quality improvement efforts. We also have numerous, confidential channels employees or others may use to notify us of any potential concerns about our operations, working conditions or employee living arrangements.

“While we are unable to comment on the details of this pending litigation brought by two former seasonal employees, we can tell you the claims made in that lawsuit are not accurate. North Pacific Seafoods will vigorously fight these inaccurate allegations through the legal process.”

The statement notes that California plaintiffs’ attorneys filed the class-action lawsuit months after the salmon season ended and after the two named plaintiffs had already returned to their homes.

That eliminated North Pacific Seafoods’ ability to address any potential questions or concerns in a timely manner.

“Instead, the plaintiffs’ attorneys appear more interested in financial compensation than working conditions,” according to the company.

Original story:

Hundreds of Alaska-based seafood employees were forced to endure filthy, unsafe working conditions — including rat-infested bunkhouses — and stiffed on wages daily, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle in October.

North Pacific Seafoods, Inc. shorted workers of wages owed last summer by requiring they punch a timeclock only after they donned and doffed protective gear, a lengthy process that involves rubber aprons, boots, multiples sets of gloves, hairnets, earplugs and other safety equipment, the lawsuit alleges.

Headquartered in Seattle, North Pacific Seafoods is a subsidiary of Marubeni Corp, a multi-billion-dollar Japanese conglomerate. The company will not comment on pending litigation, said Leauri Moore, vice president of human resources and administration. North Pacific Seafoods operates multiple processing plants in key Alaska fishing communities including Kodiak, Sitka, Togiak and Naknek. The company controls about 10 percent of the Alaska fisheries market, according to the lawsuit.

The company flies in as many as 800 seasonal workers to clean, fillet, package, freeze and can fish at its Alaska plants. Many of the workers are from Mexico and Central America, plaintiff attorneys said.

Before being cleared to clock in, workers at the Red Salmon plant in Naknek would typically spend 10 to 15 minutes donning gear and another 10 minutes waiting to be checked in, one by one, according to the complaint by Erickson Kramer Osborne, a California-based law firm. The workers’ paid shift would not begin until they completed this process.

At the end of their shifts, often running 16 hours, they would punch out. But that was before removing their soiled rubber aprons and gloves, discarding their hair nets and ear plugs, and washing their boots and gloves, a 10 to 15-minute process.

“Workers were not paid for 30 to 50 minutes of time spent under company control each day,” according to the complaint.

For workers at the bottom of the pay scale, this meant losing “hundreds of dollars each month.”

Similar pay conditions were in place at each of Northern Pacific Seafoods’ plants in Alaska, not just at the Red Salmon facility, according to the complaint.

Rodents and sewage odors

North Pacific Seafood offers free food and lodging, but the lawsuit paints a Kafkaesque picture of the living conditions.

Several workers had to beat their mattresses to scare away rats.

“One entered his rooms to find a rat had given birth to a litter of pups and was nursing on his bed linens,” according to allegations in the complaint.

Besides rodent-infested dormitory rooms, workers frequently encountered the stench of mold. The mold fumes were so strong in the bathroom, “workers held their breath while using it.”

Tap water was often murky and smelled like fish. Bottled water was in short supply with the commissaries often running out. Several workers became ill last summer from what they allege was contaminated water. They were told to keep working, the complaint alleges.

“The dining hall in one facility smelled of raw sewage.”

Workers said the smell came from a leaking sewage line beneath the dining hall. No repairs were made and some workers, sickened by the odor, “simply did not eat.”

Workers were provided a single dust mask for the entire fishing season. It was to serve as “both a face shield from fish entrails and a COVID-19 protective mask.”

Within a day or two, the masks would be covered in fish blood and entrails and rendered useless.

On one occasion, some workers were exposed to an ammonia leak, forcing them into a panicked evacuation, and stinging their eyes and lungs. They later discovered there was an ammonia detector on the plant floor but it didn’t work, according to the lawsuit.

The two named plaintiffs — Pedro Torres, a resident of Texas, and Jorge Hurtago of Washington state — worked at Red Salmon Cannery in Naknek, said attorney Kevin M. Osborne of San Francisco, Calif., who is representing them.

Joining them in the class action could be between 800 and 1,000 individuals who worked for North Pacific Seafoods in various Alaska plants last summer. Osborne described it as a multi-million-dollar case.

While the company won’t comment on the lawsuit, North Pacific Seafoods Inc. “works hard to create and maintain safe workplaces and to comply with all requirements,” Moore said.

It will continue to work with current and former employees “on any issues or concerns they have related to working for our company,” she said.

Alaska state officials have long recognized that problems exist in the seafood processing industry with unscrupulous employers luring seasonal workers to remote parts of the state with “misleading promises of exciting work and high pay,” the complaint alleges.

State law prohibits using false representations and fraud to secure workers but the problem continues, according to the lawsuit. Former Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson wrote an editorial last January about labor and sex trafficking as being under-reported crimes in Alaska and something the state needs to get a handle on.

“The Department of Law is committed to preventing these heinous crimes, prosecuting traffickers, protecting victims and educating Alaskans about this important issue. When it comes to trafficking, the message should be clear: Alaska is not open for business,” Clarkson wrote.

Earlier case

The current lawsuit against North Pacific Seafoods, Inc., filed on Oct. 19, isn’t the only one against the company this year involving labor abuse allegations.

North Pacific Seafoods settled a lawsuit in July for unpaid wages, false imprisonment, and failure to follow COVID-19 testing and quarantine protocols.

Valued at more than $440,000, the settlement covers 165 workers, with most eligible to receive $2,685, according to plaintiff attorneys.

On June 2, up to 150 workers from Mexico and the United States were told to gather at the Crowne Plaza LAX Hotel in Los Angeles. They would be tested for COVID-19, remain in quarantine for four days and then fly to Alaska, according to the lawsuit.

Upon arrival on June 10, the mostly Spanish-speaking group waited for hours in a hotel hallway until their names were called.

After being tested for coronavirus, the workers were sent to hotel rooms and told to remain there. They got two meals a day. When three workers tested positive, the group was informed it would remain in quarantine until June 25. The hotel deactivated the room keys so workers could not leave and re-enter.

The workers were told they would not be paid for their time in confinement and that if they left their rooms they would be fired, according to the lawsuit.

One person allegedly left their room and was fired.

The workers flew to Alaska on June 22.

Keeping the workers confined to their rooms and denying them wages during quarantine was unlawful, according to the lawsuit.

Attorney Jonathon Davis called the hotel situation as “bizarre and outrageous.”

“Following safe procedures and protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is a paramount public safety and health concern but that doesn’t absolve employers from paying employees under their control,” Davis said.

The company tried to settle claims with each worker individually and undermine the case, he said.

“Once the company began settling with individual workers, we filed papers with the court to stop what we believed was an unfair process. As a result, we were able to negotiate a better agreement not just for the workers in Alaska but for all the workers who were held in the quarantine, whether they went north or not,” Davis said.

The law firm handled the case pro-bono.

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