Two amendments supported by U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski to help the seafood industry recruit and hire seasonal workers made it through a major legislative hurdle today and are now included in the Senate's immigration bill, S.744.
"I am determined to make sure Alaska seafood industry employers have the reliable pool of seasonal help they need to maintain adequate processing capacity," said Sen. Begich. "Without adequate processing capacity fishermen can't deliver their catch, families lose income, and communities lose tax revenue."
At the insistence of Sens. Begich and Murkowski, the Alaska seafood language was inserted into a major border security amendment that now will serve as the main immigration bill in the Senate. Both senators are co-sponsors of the overall bill, which faces its first key vote Monday on the Senate floor. Senate leaders hope final passage will come before the July 4th holiday.
The new language will ensure that Americans receive preference for all available jobs and that the industry is responsible for demonstrating an inability to attract American citizens for the jobs before hiring foreign workers. Begich believes these amendments are vital to Alaska's economy.
"The seafood industry provides many Alaskans with living wage jobs that support their families and local economies," said Sen. Begich. "However, when seafood processors cannot recruit enough employees to work in their processing plants, the entire system is jeopardized. These amendments require priority hiring for Americans but also create a clear, fair process for employers to hire foreign employees for temporary seasonal work when necessary."
While the seafood industry offers the opportunity to earn good wages, it is also known for long hours and seasonal work under cold and wet conditions. Alaska processors have traditionally relied on guest workers to fill in jobs on their processing lines, especially in remote locations which lack an adequate local workforce.
About the Amendments
The Alaska seafood industry has historically relied upon J-1 or "Summer Work Travel" visas to hire guest workers. These short term (4-month) visas were a good fit for the Alaska seafood industry but were excluded from the program last year, and new restrictions were put on working hours. Sen. Begich sent a request to Secretary of State John Kerry this year asking for seafood jobs to be reinstated to the program this year and has continued to work to find ways for the seafood industry to hire seasonal workers. The new language in the immigration bill would put Alaska seafood processing back into the J-1 program. A fee will be charged to the industry for each guest worker.
The other fix declares Alaska fish processing as a "shortage occupation," which would expedite the industry's ability to recruit seasonal workers outside the U.S. through the new W Visa Program created in the immigration bill.
The W-visas are a new idea to restructure various guest worker programs. This longer term (3-year) visa is intended for jobs that chronically fail to attract enough domestic workers. Foreign workers in these so-called "shortage occupations" must be paid at the same rate as domestic workers and must work under the same circumstances.
"I'm pleased with this "belt and suspenders' approach to addressing the seafood industry guest worker needs," said Sen. Begich. "With these amendments, Alaska's senators were able to preserve the traditional J-1 program while making sure Alaska seafood is also included in the new W program, which is really the way of the future for dealing with guest workers."