State safety inspectors attempted to impose a fine of $ 450,000 on Copper River Seafoods. Their commissioner blocked it.


Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter at a press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic on April 3, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Office of Governor Dunleavy)

Department of Labor Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter has blocked nearly $ 450,000 in fines against a seafood factory, according to her own inspectors, deliberately violating COVID-19 workplace safety standards, according to reports internal documents.

Now state lawmakers are investigating.

House Representative Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat who previously worked for the Labor Department, said he and his Labor and Commerce committee co-chair had received a whistleblower complaint that Ledbetter was blocking the application of state safety standards at work.

“The people of Alaska have to work to support their families,” Fields said. “When they go to work, they shouldn’t have to risk their lives to put food on the table.”

The Fields Committee is holding a hearing to answer questions regarding a Copper River Seafoods plant in Anchorage and Alaska Glacier Seafoods, based in Juneau. Both companies experienced significant outbreaks of COVID-19 last year.

Seafood factories by nature have a large number of people working nearby.

Workers remove bones from salmon fillets at the Auke Bay processing plant of Alaska Glacier Seafoods (David Purdy / KTOO)

But in the case of Copper River Seafoods, inspectors said the company “made minimal effort” to protect employees from the virus.

According to Department of Labor documents, state occupational safety inspectors were invited to visit the Copper River plant after the Department of Health reported that 77% of the company’s employees had contracted COVID-19.

State contact tracers told inspectors 19 employees complained about the plant when questioned. Workers described overcrowded working conditions, forced to buy their own masks and said their complaints to management had fallen on deaf ears, inspection records show.

State inspectors attended the East Copper River plant in Anchorage in August and later found that five employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 and should have been isolated were working in the plant during the on-site inspections.

An inspector noted that despite a major outbreak of COVID-19 at the plant – which prompted a two-week shutdown – the company has taken minimal steps to protect employees.

“During this time, [Copper River Seafoods] was actively engaged with public health officials in the state of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage, who described their initial meetings with property and management as “hostile,” the inspector said.

No one from Copper River Seafoods returned a phone call asking for comment.

State inspectors have proposed nearly $ 450,000 in fines after the on-site visit, both for COVID-19 concerns and other safety concerns. But, the commissioner blocked him, saying he was not sufficiently supported by the inspectors of the documentation provided.

In an internal memo to Director Joe Knowles, who oversees the Labor and Safety Standards Division, Ledbetter wrote that she was concerned with how she had been made aware of the citations. So, she ordered a change in the way citations are handled: Now Ledbetter must approve all proposed citations over $ 50,000 that safety inspectors wish to issue.

Reached by email on Tuesday, Commissioner Ledbetter said the type of citations inspectors wanted to issue against Copper River Seafoods for its COVID-19 violations were unprecedented in Alaska.

She wrote that her department is working with the counterpart of the Federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration to determine her authority going forward. She did not answer questions about what her office would do to enforce COVID-19 safety standards with employers who refuse to follow them.

Fields said Ledbetter’s actions are unprecedented and he wants the commissioner to come before his committee and explain her decision.

“For me it’s a matter of policy because the occupational safety and health staff did their job. They investigated the workplace safety issues. They recommended measures to correct the problems on the job site. When that didn’t happen, they took enforcement action, ”Fields said. “The problem I have is that a politically appointed person flushes the law down the toilet and refuses to enforce it.”

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Tanya S. Norvell