Contrary to media reports and misinformed statements by some legislators and activists, protecting our workers’ health and safety has been our first and highest priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our employees have been with us for a long time, and choose to work at Copper River Seafoods year after year. They are like family to us. Given the headlines of the past week, we would like to set the record straight.
The Department of Labor investigated an outbreak of COVID-19 at our Anchorage plant last summer. Although some concerns were raised during the investigation, Copper River Seafoods was not cited for any safety violations. As Director Joseph Knowles testified in a recent legislative hearing, Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter, in consultation with the Department of Law, decided no citation or fines should issue. For the first time ever, an investigator had proposed using the “general duty” standard to fine an employer for COVID-19 protocols because the department had no specific COVID-19 standards in place for employers to follow. In defending the commissioner’s decision, Director Knowles recognized mistakes were made internally and that there was a “misinterpretation of policies and procedures.”
No one struggling to fight back against this insidious pandemic did everything perfect. Like many industries, we struggled to employ the most effective measures to take in the face of constantly evolving scientific disclosures and rapidly changing government mandates and regulations. We learned along the way, and changed safety measures accordingly. We always included regular health screenings and temperature checks, masking and regular handwashing, face shields for workers in close proximity, regular cleaning of high-touch areas, and staggered work breaks to facilitate social distancing. We also now split work crews to create even more distance between employees. Contrary to false statements that have been made, Copper River followed published return-to-work guidelines that were in effect at the time. In retrospect, we did pretty well given the size and scope of the challenge. The main Anchorage plant was closed for a total of 13 days in July and August out of the entire year of operation during the pandemic. None of our other plants suffered any serious outbreaks, and work continued without a single day’s interruption. In total, our company experienced 13 days of plant closure out of 829 days of operation — at all of our plants — during the pandemic.
Managing COVID-19 in Anchorage turned out to be much more difficult than in smaller, more rural areas where we, along with the rest of the industry, pre-quarantined workers, obtained negative tests and confined workers to the plant premises. By contrast, Anchorage is a population hub where workers go home every day and mix with the population. Because of this, our plant was vulnerable to community spread. Copper River Seafoods was designated an essential business because we provide food to the people, something the government wisely decided should not be shut down. That designation was necessary because the food preparation industry cannot always effectively provide social distancing. We care about and admire our employees who dedicate themselves to their work despite knowing the risks. We continue our focus to develop strategies to account for this reality, and have been largely successful in keeping our workplaces COVID-free.
Normally, when safety inspectors visit a site and note any violations, they notify the operator and provide instructions for how to fix — or “abate” — the problems. Even when they determine that a citation is warranted, the business has the right to contest facts and have a hearing. That did not happen here. But CRS learned from the inspector’s visit, and implemented many new safety protocols. In order to leave no doubt as to our commitment to employee health and safety, CRS recently requested the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health, or AKOSH, again visit and inspect three of our plants, including the year-round facility in Anchorage. In addition, more additional AKOSH trainings for managers and staff have been requested. These are voluntary, proactive requests were made in the spirit of cooperation and a commitment to employee health.
The relationship between businesses and regulators works best when it is first based upon collaboration, cooperation and trust toward the common goal of worker safety. When leaks of confidential documents thrust a business unfairly into the public eye, that relationship is threatened to the detriment of us all. A business should not learn of a potential citation or penalty on the evening news, as was the case here.
We do not understand the motivation for splashing selected, incomplete and misleading investigation details in the media when the department conceded internal protocols were not followed. Indeed, we would suggest the bigger story is how and why this case was allowed to be debated in the press instead of within the appropriate channels. Whatever happened here, Copper River Seafoods is proud of the work we do to keep our employees healthy and safe, and even more proud of our workforce for taking COVID-19 preventative measures seriously. No amount of insinuation or political posturing can change that, or keep us from continuing on our mission to produce some of the most nutritious, healthy food in the world.
Scott Blake is the president and CEO of Copper River Seafoods.