WASHINGTON — The State Department is moving to halt visas that allow foreign students to work in U.S. manufacturing jobs, which Alaska seafood processors say could create an employment crisis going into the summer season.
State Department overhaul of the J-1 Summer Work Travel program comes after reports of abuse. In one well publicized incident last summer, hundreds of foreign students walked off their jobs at a plant in Pennsylvania that packs Hershey's chocolates, saying they were subjected to brutal sweatshop conditions for scant pay.
The changes to the program would have a particularly big impact in Alaska.
Glen Reed of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association said he's heard estimates that 4,000 to 5,000 foreign students work in the Alaska seafood industry each summer through the program. It's not unusual for smaller seafood processing companies to hire half their workers through the visa program, he said, and those companies are struggling more than the big players to find replacements.
The Alaska congressional delegation is objecting to the rule change and hopes to at least slow it down so this summer's fishing season is spared.
"This abrupt reduction in the available workforce would impact not just the participating students and processing companies but fishermen who depend on these processors to sell their catch and the communities in which these facilities operate," Alaska Sen. Mark Begich recently wrote the Obama administration. "Remote Alaska communities where the local economy largely depends on relatively small processing facilities are likely to suffer the greatest hardship."
The seafood plants are often in far-flung locations and these are jobs that many Alaskans don't want, said Reed of the seafood processors association. The jobs are grueling and don't pay a lot, although the long hours lead to overtime pay and workers save money since the plants are often in places where there's not a lot to spend money on.
Finding workers in the Lower 48 to fill the gap isn't easy despite the sluggish economy, Reed said.
"People looking for jobs are first and foremost looking close to home. And a lot of them are not looking for entry level jobs like this, where you travel far and you've got to be on your feet, when the season peaks, for 16 hours a day plus or minus for maybe several weeks in a row," Reed said.
State Department representatives did not return calls Friday to discuss the J-1 visa issue. But the changes come after a review ordered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The program had become an embarrassment with reports in the Lower 48 of exploited workers, including even women forced to work in strip clubs.
Begich himself wrote Clinton in November saying the program should be reviewed.
He wrote that foreign students showed up in Kodiak, Kenai and Soldotna and had to rely on locals for help because they didn't have money for housing and transportation. In some cases the students took overtime work from the locals, Begich wrote.
"The lack of overtime pay caused local residents to not have the usual income to provide for their families. Some had to visit the food bank and local homeless shelter for assistance," Begich wrote.
Begich wanted more oversight so that employment contractors don't send too many foreign students to a town that can't handle them, said his spokeswoman, Julie Hasquet. But Begich never asked for foreign students to be forbidden from seafood plants, she said.
Begich and the other two members of Alaska's Congressional delegation are pressing the Obama administration to stop the State Department from going through with the change. The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing whether to let the State Department go ahead with it.
"It is really a tough situation, especially given there was so little notice to industry," said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Seafood processors, meanwhile, are scrambling to find replacement workers in time for the summer season.
"It's a struggle and not going to come without some significant cost," said Norm Van Vactor, manager of Leader Creek Seafood's Naknek plant.
He said the foreign students, many of whom come from Eastern Europe, are good workers. They use the money to pay for school or to travel around the country before going home, he said.
Robin Richardson of Copper River Seafoods said her company has worked toward training Alaska workers and increasing automation. But the company was planning on J-1 workers this summer and had screened and selected 200 of them in the Czech Republic over the winter who apparently will now not be allowed to come and work.
"The timing is really the biggest challenge," she said.