Opinions

Alaskans need answers on Copper River Seafoods investigation

As the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, Alaska’s largest labor organization, my responsibility is to fight for workers’ rights, whether they belong to a union or not.

Protecting workers’ health and safety has been at the forefront of our work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent media reports have uncovered that Commissioner of Labor Tamika Ledbetter blocked nearly $450,000 in proposed fines against a seafood plant that willfully violated COVID-19 workplace safety standards and was hostile with public health officials from the State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage.

The question is, why?

Were the violations mild and isolated, causing them to fall through the cracks of an overburdened department?

No. Far from it. A memo from health officials, dated Nov. 12, noted that Copper River Seafoods, over time, failed to effectively screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms, failed to implement social distancing, failed to provide barriers for employees when they could not social distance, and failed to prevent sick and symptomatic workers from entering the facility.

Were these hazards addressed promptly by Copper River Seafoods?

No. During the latter half of July, Copper River Seafoods experienced a severe outbreak of COVID-19. On Aug. 7, Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH) performed an in-person inspection and noted that employees were still working in close proximity, no physical barriers were installed and working conditions were mostly unchanged. Even more concerning, officials revealed that five employees who had tested positive were working, despite being required to quarantine for at least 10 days.

Between July 17 and Aug. 13, 95 Copper River Seafood employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Are the workers to blame?

No! These workers were failed by their employer. Plain and simple. Workers should not have to decide between their health and safety or feeding their families and paying rent, especially during a pandemic.

Luckily, we have a system to prevent workers from having to make this choice. And the system worked, until it didn’t.

Health officials did what they were supposed to. They investigated the working conditions, made a serious attempt to correct the unsafe working conditions, and ultimately made an enforcement recommendation to the commissioner. And this is where the system failed.

Why did the commissioner decide against enforcing fines for an employer that “repeatedly displayed plain indifference for the health and safety of its employees?”

I can’t answer this, but we deserve an answer (from the person who can). And I look forward to the House Labor and Commerce Committee looking into this matter and asking Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter these questions and more.

People often ask, “What’s the utility of labor unions in 2021, in the age of a globalized, information-based economy?” This story highlights our purpose. We fight for safe workplaces and give working people a collective voice to address workplace injustices without the fear of retaliation.

We strive to ensure all working people are treated fairly while also recognizing that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous and other people of color, low-income workers, who have been on the frontlines helping our society navigate this turbulent time.

Our organization stands firm in holding employers accountable for their actions — or, in this case, inactions.

Joelle Hall is the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO. She lives in Anchorage.

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