‘Sometimes we get bored’: Unalaska fish processors work back-to-back seasons to keep their jobs

Workers sort crab at the UniSea processing plant in Unalaska. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Unalaska’s onshore processing plants have chosen to keep seasonal employees on the island between fishing seasons.

In the rural Alaskan town of 4,500 year-round residents, an influx of about 1,000 international workers, who are looking for ways to keep busy, is quite a change.

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UniSea is keeping plant security tight. In order to enter, everyone must pass through a checkpoint and show a company ID or be placed on a list of expected visitors. 

That check-in is one of many strategies the plant is employing to keep the virus out. Another strategy is keeping workers on the island in between fishing seasons. 

Usually, processors come from all over the world to this island town. They stay from January to April, for what’s known as “A” season, then leave to go home. Many come back for “B” season, from June until September. 

But this year, UniSea required that anyone who wants to work the “B” season stay on-island for the several weeks between seasons. That way, no one travels and risks bringing COVID-19 back to the plant. 

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It’s easiest to think of a processing plant almost like a college campus. Everyone eats at the same dining hall. Everyone sleeps in shared bunkhouses. If the virus enters, it could spread like wildfire. 

Now Unalaska’s plants, and the island, have an odd problem on their hands: how to keep roughly a thousand workers occupied while they wait for the next fishing season to begin. 

Todor Gjokov is from Macedonia, where he’s finishing up a Master’s degree. He came here for the “A” season and decided to stay longer.

Usually, he works 12-hour days in the plants as a processor. But in the off-season, he’s making sure UniSea’s common areas are clean and not overcrowded.  

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“I am the one that is coordinating the recreational area,” said Gjokov. “I am the one who is responsible for making sure we have no more than six people in the pool room.”

There’s a gym, a couple of pool tables—even a movie room, with chairs carefully spaced six feet apart. 

More than 430 of UniSea’s processors remained on-island in-between fishing seasons. The majority of them have H-2B visas, and all decided to remain in Unalaska instead of going home. (Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

Most processors are barely working during the off-season. They’re paid hourly, and so they’re not earning much right now. But UniSea is covering the costs of housing, and providing all meals. They can also apply for unemployment insurance. 

Grisel Garcia is from Mexico. This is her fifth year with UniSea. She said the downtime is starting to feel a little monotonous. 

“Sometimes we get bored,” said Garcia. “We don’t have TV in the bunkhouses. It’s only just eating or laying down in the room.”

Unalaska also has very limited internet access. That means Netflix, Youtube, Skype—they’re all too expensive to use every day. But Garcia isn’t complaining. 

“We feel blessed. And we say thank you to the company,” said Garcia. “Because right now we have a job. How many people don’t have a job? They are broke. And still we can pay our bills.” 

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Garcia is planning on going home as soon as “B” season ends in September. 

“We need to go home. We need to take care of our stuff,” said Garcia. “We need our food, our family. We need our city.”

Michal Matwij, on the other hand, wants to stay as long as possible. He’s a crab processor for UniSea. This is his first time in the U.S.

Matwij said the first day he came here, he fell in love with the island. “People are awesome,” he said.

Back home in Poland, Matwij just finished the Air Force Academy. He’s trying to save money to become a commercial pilot, while also supporting his family. 

“I need money, because studying is so expensive. I am not from a family who can give me money for studying,” said Matwij. “For example, I’m earning here in one month more than working four months in my country. My region is so poor. That’s why I’m so happy I’m working.”

Matwij loves exploring the island. He points to the mountains outside the window, says he’s hiked three of them. He’s from a rural region in Poland, and mountains feel a little like home. 

Matwij isn’t scared of the coronavirus: “We are safe here. I want to stay here as long as possible.”

Before January, Matwij had never seen the ocean, or even a crab up close. On his off days, he likes to climb up high and look out over the Bering Sea. 

“Sometimes it’s for me, and I don’t go to the top…I just sit in the middle and just watch,” said Matwij. “Because this is the first time I’ve seen the ocean. I’ve never seen the sea before.”

In all, UniSea is keeping about 430 processors on the island through “B” season. The two other onshore plants—Westward Seafood and Alyeska Seafoods—are doing the same

As for the season after that, it’s still unclear what will happen next.