Peter Pan latest processor to announce COVID-19 vaccine mandate

  • The King Cove seafood processing plant is the only one of the facilities owned by Peter Pan Seafood Co. that operates year-round. The company announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement on Sept. 1 that will go into effect on Oct. 1, with the King Cove plant to receive an extension. (Photo/Courtesy/Peter Pan Seafood Co.)

After two seasons of closed campuses, rigorous COVID-19 testing and masks, Alaska’s seafood processors are increasingly turning to vaccine mandates for employees in a bid to keep their facilities open.

The latest is Peter Pan Seafood Co., which announced its vaccine requirement for employees on Sept. 1. The requirement won’t go into effect for most employees until Oct. 1, with an extension for King Cove facility employees after that.

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, though Peter Pan said in its announcement that it encouraged fishermen to be vaccinated and has provided the opportunity since April 2021.

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

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

May said the major driving factor behind the decision is to continue to be responsible to employees and the communities in which Peter Pan operates. Even with the vaccine requirement in place, the company plans to continue its closed-campus and masking policies for workers. Peter Pan has been lucky and not experienced an outbreak at its facilities, he said, but if one happened, it could be devastating for the company and for the employees.

“If for some reason you’re shut down for 20, 25 days, that could be 25 percent of their paycheck for the whole summer,” he said. “They didn’t sign up for that.”

Alaska seafood processors rely heavily on workers from the Lower 48 and internationally to staff their plants, particularly the seasonal ones. That means many have to enter the state as the season ramps up, and the companies have had to bear the brunt of the cost of mitigating COVID-19 risk in that process, including testing workers frequently, paying for PPE, quaranting them in hotels and trying to social distance where possible in facilities that are normally densely crowded with workers.

They received some federal relief funding meant to help offset that cost, but not all of it, and it posed a significant expense for many.

To date, processing plants have experienced a number of outbreaks statewide, including several complete plant shutdowns. In July, Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods in Cordova had to shutter 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 close at the beginning of the crab and pollock seasons.

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

Multiple processing companies have now announced that they will require vaccines for employees, including Trident Seafoods and OBI. American Seafoods states in its information for applicants that it requires new crew members to “undergo COVID-19 tests, pass a fit-for-duty exam, show proof of COVID-19 vaccine, exemption, or obtain vaccination through us, and receive this year’s flu shot.”

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

“Our facilities and vessels require employees to work and live in close quarters, 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 shut down operations in the event of another outbreak,” the company’s website states.

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

“We’re not talking a huge amount of people,” he said. “(The King Cove facility) is still very busy, and I didn’t want to put a gun to their head. The goal isn’t to terminate somebody and send them on their way.”

He said Peter Pan has been blessed so far that it has not had a facility shutdown due to an outbreak, but if it fell in a high-volume time, there would “literally be no recovering.” In Port Moller and King Cove, Peter Pan is the only processors in the immediate vicinity, but even in Bristol Bay, a shutdown would impact the fleet because the other plants are already operating at capacity.

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

The CDC has not provided guidance about recognition of foreign-developed vaccines, though President Joe Biden’s administration said in early August that it was working on guidance on verification of international vaccines for tourists.

This year is Peter Pan’s first full calendar year operating after the reorganization in 2020. May said he thought the company is headed in the right direction, and that the vaccine decision is a leadership decision he hopes others can learn from.

“There’s no right answer here,” he said. “We hope that people learn from it—we’re sure learning from it.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/08/2021 - 10:02am