High Risk Awaits Immigrants In Alaska’s 'Ballard North' | KUOW News and Information

High Risk Awaits Immigrants In Alaska’s 'Ballard North'

Oct 18, 2015

In Ballard, a human resources manager for Trident Seafoods talks to a room of people hoping to be seafood processors – warning them of the dangers of the job.

SEAN CASADY, HR DIRECTOR: "You need to be able to stand on your feet for up to 16 hours a day in cold and wet conditions."

He wants to make sure the new hires know this is a tough job.

It’s easy to get hurt working in the seafood industry in Alaska. The nonfatal injury rate for almost every industry in Alaska is higher than the national average. And manufacturing jobs like seafood processing top the list.

Still, thousands of people head to Alaska to work in the fishing industry. They earn minimum wage but stand to make much more by working overtime. Room and board, provided by the company, are almost free – $5 per day for those who finish their contract ($15 for those who don’t). Workers often take the job hoping to save.

For new immigrants, fish processing can be lucrative. But the plants are in very remote places – which makes it hard for those who get injured and don’t speak much English.

That’s what happened to Salahaldin Adam, a fish processor at Trident Seafoods. He’s a refugee from the Darfur region of Sudan who lives in Spokane. A lot of immigrants – and increasingly Africans – come up to Alaska to save up money.

In June, Adam came up to Cordova, Alaska, to work.

But three weeks into his contract he hurt his right hand in a freezer.

The doctor told him to rest for seven days, but taking time off eats into the money Adam was hoping to save. Time is especially precious during salmon season because the run only lasts a couple of months.

When Adam first got hurt, a Trident representative took him to the hospital. The hospital took an X-ray but didn’t find broken bones. Seventeen days later, when reporters from Seattle caught up with him in the hospital parking lot, his hand still hurt. It was puffy and swollen.

He was frustrated, saying he had been asking the company to schedule another appointment. They had tried, but to Adam it felt like they kept putting him off.

At the hospital, he struggled to communicate with a nurse.

NURSE: "So they did do an X-ray?"

ADAM: "X-ray?"

NURSE: "Did they do an X-ray of your hand?"

ADAM: "Yeah."

This is what it’s like trying to communicate. The broad strokes are clear but the details are tricky.

The nurse looked up Adam’s file. He explained that he hadn’t understood what happened the last time, as no interpreter had been available.

It turned out Adam had an appointment scheduled for the next day. Both Trident and the hospital had wanted him to see the doctor he’d seen the first time.

It’s that sort of thing – the future tense, conditions – that is hard to understand in a new language.

In the exam room, there’s a flyer on the wall with a special number that hospital staff can call for language help. But people don’t always use the number. The seafood companies often rely on other workers to help interpret.

Casady, the human resources director for Trident, said the company has been trying to find ways to keep Adam working.

CASADY: "In this particular case, we were able to accommodate the gentleman and give him duties where he only needed to use one hand."

The seafood companies invest a lot of money flying workers up to Alaska and keeping them fed and housed. They avoid workers' compensation claims when possible.

CASADY: "On workers' comp, you get about two-thirds of your pay. Versus if he continues to work on modified duty, then he gets full pay and we don’t have a workers' comp claim on top of that.”

Posters on the wall at a job center in Anchorage, Alaska, run by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The department has an employee dedicated to helping the seafood companies recruit for processing jobs. Because of high turnover, long hours and remote locations, recruiting is a big challenge for seafood companies.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alex Stonehill

Many people who work with refugees say this is not the best job for a new arrival.

Issa Braman works at a refugee welcome center run by Catholic Social Services in Anchorage.

BRAMAN: "You have just been plopped into a brand new country. You’ve experienced trauma through various parts of your life and now you have no resources or connections to the community or home that you might have."

She teaches a class for immigrants about why they shouldn’t work for the seafood companies.

BRAMAN: "It’s basically like, ‘Here is the reality of what your life is going to look like if you take that fishing job.’"

Braman says the ideal job for a new refugee would be washing dishes or working at Wal-Mart. Even if it’s part time and minimum wage, it gives people a chance to work their way up. And it keeps them close to people who can help.

At the Copper River Seafoods plant in Cordova, where this woman specializes in roe. She sorts salmon roe, sometimes egg by egg using tweezers, mostly for the Japanese market.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alex Stonehill

Back at the hospital in Cordova, Adam got an X-ray for the second time. He walked out with his wrist in a brace and a prescription for an anti-inflammatory. He was told to rest seven more days.

Ultimately, Adam’s workers' compensation claim was accepted. But he said it’s not enough money to live on, so he’s struggling to find a new job in Spokane – one that allows him to work with one hand.

Alex Stonehill and Sarah Stuteville contributed reporting.

This series, "Ballard North," was produced with the support of the Program Venture Fund, in partnership with The Seattle Globalist. It was reported by Jessica Partnow, with additional reporting by Alex Stonehill,  Sarah Stuteville and Feliks Banel. Edited by Carol Smith.