Alaska Journal | Peter Pan, latest processor to announce COVID-19 vaccine mandate

After two seasons of closed campuses, rigorous COVID-19 testing and masks, Alaskan seafood processors are increasingly turning to vaccine mandates for employees in an effort to keep their facilities open.

The latest is Peter Pan Seafood Co., which announced its vaccine requirement for employees on September 1. The requirement will not come into effect for most employees until October 1, with an extension for employees at the King Cove facility thereafter.

Peter Pan operates facilities in Valdez, Dillingham, Port Moller and King Cove, but only the King Cove facility is open year round. The requirement would not apply to the fishing fleet, although Peter Pan said in his announcement that he was encouraging fishermen to get vaccinated and had offered the option since April 2021.

The company estimates that about 95% of its approximately 1,800 employees are already vaccinated and that it will honor religious and medical exemptions. Rodger May, president and chief growth officer of Peter Pan, said the decision was one of the most difficult he had ever debated.

“People are right on both sides (of the vaccine),” he said. “I hope the religious and medical exemptions fill all the gaps.”

May said the main factor behind the decision is to continue to be accountable to employees and the communities in which Peter Pan operates. Even with the vaccine requirement in place, the company plans to continue with its closed campus and masking policies for workers. Peter Pan was lucky and did not experience an outbreak at his facilities, he said, but if it did, it could be devastating for the company and for employees.

“If for some reason you’re closed for 20, 25 days, it could be 25% of their pay for the whole summer,” he said. “They didn’t sign up for this.”

Alaskan seafood processors rely heavily on workers in the Lower 48 and around the world for staff in their factories, especially seasonal factories. This means that many must enter the state as the season heats up, and businesses have had to bear the brunt of the cost of COVID-19 risk mitigation in this process, including frequently testing workers, paying for PPE, quarantining it in hotels and trying to distance itself socially as much as possible in facilities that are normally densely populated with workers.

They received federal relief funds to help offset this cost, but not all of it, and it was a significant expense for many.

To date, processing plants have experienced a number of outbreaks statewide, including several complete plant closures. In July, Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods in Cordova had to shut down briefly in response to an outbreak among workers, and in January 2021, two of the state’s largest processing plants – owned by Trident and UniSea – had to shut down in early crab and pollock seasons.

Between spring and fall 2020, 13 outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred at seafood processing facilities in Alaska and on ships, with 539 cases that counted among workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. and Prevention in the United States. Until “high vaccination rates” can be achieved in the seafood processing workforce, recommendations are to keep quarantine groups below 10 people, to test workers before. transfer and perform serial testing to prevent outbreaks.

Several processors have now announced that they will require vaccines for their employees, including Trident Seafoods and OBI. American Seafoods says in its information to applicants that it requires new crew members “to undergo COVID-19 tests, pass a fitness-for-duty exam, show proof of COVID-19 vaccine, exemption or get vaccinated through us, and receive this flu shot of the year.

Trident says its requirement is meant to help alleviate some of the difficulties regarding where and how it operates.

“Our facilities and vessels require employees to work and live nearby, there are limitations on the medical services we can provide in remote locations, and it is not reasonably practical to evacuate from remote locations or to d ” stop operations in the event of another epidemic. Says the company’s website.

May said the majority of Peter Pan employees are already vaccinated, so the remaining few will be able to decide whether they want to receive the vaccine or seek employment elsewhere. In the case of those who would prefer not to get the shot or an exemption, the company will help them move them to another processing facility. The timeline for the business requirement will help facilitate that, he said.

“We’re not talking about a lot of people,” he said. “(The King Cove facility) is always very busy and I didn’t want to point a gun in their temples. The point is not to fire someone and fire them. “

He said Peter Pan had been blessed so far not to have closed his facilities due to an outbreak, but if he fell within a high time frame there would be “literally no recovery” . In Port Moller and King Cove, Peter Pan is the only transformer in the immediate vicinity, but even in Bristol Bay a shutdown would impact the fleet as the other factories are already operating at full capacity.

Hiring is competitive, but May said he didn’t expect the requirement to create a problem for Peter Pan in finding employees. In its requirements, the company states that it defines “fully vaccinated” as having two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The CDC has not provided guidance on recognizing vaccines developed abroad, although President Joe Biden’s administration said in early August it was working on guidance on checking international vaccines for tourists. .

This year is Peter Pan’s first full calendar year after the 2020 reorganization. May said he believes the company is going in the right direction and that the vaccine decision is a leadership decision he hopes to see. others will be able to learn lessons.

“There is no right answer here,” he said. “We hope people will learn from it, we will certainly learn from it.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

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