As Alaska braces for an increase in coronavirus patients, Unalaska's processing industry is adjusting to the new norms. There are four major processing plants currently operating in Unalaska: UniSea, Westward Seafoods Incorporated (WSI), Alyeska Seafoods Incorporated (ASI), and Icicle Seafoods.
Considered an "essential business," the fishing industry is exempt from state and local health mandates to stay home from work, avoid inter-state travel, and quarantine after arriving in any new community. But some plants are choosing to enact strict public health measures anyway. UniSea is implementing a mandatory quarantine for any employees flying into Unalaska. But WSI and ASI—which are both owned by the same parent company—appear to have developed the strongest response among processors in Unalaska so far.
"As corporate citizens of Unalaska, WSI and ASI recognize our solemn responsibility toward the safety and well-being of our shared community," said president Mark JoHahnson in a statement. "WSI/ASI believe the best route toward preventing the spread of Covid-19 is to keep the virus off the island in the first place."
All employees who have left the island are required to self-quarantine for 14 days under corporate rules. To ensure cooperation, plant security escorts all arrivals from Unalaska's Tom Madsen Airport directly to quarantine sites. Any employees—and their families—in self-isolation receive daily meal services and check-ins from plant staff.
Pollock fishing is split into four seasons, with "A" and "B" seasons being peak production times. Usually, as "A" season winds down in April, plant workers go off-island and return in May for the start of "B" season. But as coronavirus spreads across the globe, processors are scrambling to keep plants staffed, while maintaining isolated (and therefore healthy) work populations.
WSI/ASI is requesting that some of its seasonal workers remain on-island between "A" and "B" season.
"By keeping staff on hand, we hope to minimize the number of travelers back to the island in the crucial May-June preparation time for B Season," said JoHahnson in a statement.
WSI/ASI will need 400 seasonal employees (along with its normal 300-person year-round staff) to operate as usual. If the company cannot retain enough seasonal workers, they "will adjust our product mix to accommodate a smaller workforce," said JoHahnson.
Most processing plants do not typically offer sick leave for seasonal workers. (UniSea, for example, does not currently have a sick leave policy in place.) JoHahnson estimated that WSI/ASI has about 25% of their workers covered under sick leave policies. In addition, JoHahnson promised that, "to the extent any uninsured employees need to be medevaced, WSI/ASI will back-stop all costs not covered by other programs for the uninsured."
So far, WSI/ASI has weathered economic disruptions due to COVID-19: both their supply and distribution chains remain strong and in demand. JoHahnson did predict that sale prices may be lower than initially projected, given the larger economic downturn. But, he said, "we should be fine as long as we can continue to operate in B Season."
Under the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which goes into effect on April 1, private employers with fewer than 500 full- or part-time employees must provide sick and paid family leave for illness caused by COVID-19. (Independent contractors are not considered employees when factoring in the employee threshold.) Private sector companies with more than 500 employees are exempt. WSI/ASI is currently reviewing the act to see if it applies to their plant workers. UniSea and Icicle Seafoods both appear to be large enough to be exempt.
UniSea, the largest processing plant on the island, has also suspended flying in any new hires for its processing plants. Chris Plaisance, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at UniSea, predicts that they will need approximately 600 employees for "B" season. Workers are offered the possibility of staying during the month-long bridge between the seasons, and it seems as though many are taking UniSea up on the offer.
"At this point, we don’t plan on flying anyone up for B season," Plaisance said.
UniSea does not offer paid sick leave for processors, though they have pledged to pay employees for quarantine time should they need to fly anyone into Unalaska. The plant also does not cover medevac insurance for employees. "We have helped our employees out in the past with medevac costs," Plaisance said.
When asked what UniSea would do should Unalaska have a coronavirus outbreak, Plaisance replied that the company has submitted a plan to the state of Alaska.
"There is always a possibility that we would shut down the plant," said Plaisance. "But our goal is to keep the virus out of the community and continue to keep our facilities running."
Icicle Seafoods has not responded to requests for comment, though it does appear to be hiring for positions in Unalaska.
Representatives from two trade associations—Pacific Seafood Processors Association and At-Sea Processors Association—did release a statement of a set of four "talking points." Number three reads: "Preventing the spread of COVID-19 within Alaska, and to its fishing communities, is a central focus." According to the statement, seafood companies are "adopting screening and monitoring plans." As of Saturday afternoon, requests for follow-up comment on the specifics of those plans have gone unanswered.