End of the Salmon Season

The cannery workers get tired,

In the cold and the wet they perspired.

Your attitude sours

With unreasonable hours

I watched a fellow get fired.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time, 54 hour a week position with a Community Health Center.  I’m taking a working vacation now in Petersburg, Alaska.

A cannery worker in Petersburg signs up for 10 weeks of 16 hour shifts, and no days off.  One hundred twelve hours in a week fetches 72 hours of overtime, to make the equivalent of 148 hours of pay.  An unskilled worked could conceivably gross $11,000 in a summer, but faces the difficulty of paying for a round trip ticket.  The cannery offers a bonus of $400 to those who finish the summer.

People with functional, stable home lives don’t sign on for that kind of job; each person on the cannery work force brought drama with them.  And each bit of drama showed irony when it arrived on this island.

One plant has 600 workers but loses 2% per week.  This season, 120 workers quit or got fired.

Undoubtedly a few get news from home that whatever they fled from has resolved.  Substance abuse sabotages others.  But a good number just break under the strain of sleep deprivation.

One patient came right out and asked for a day off to sleep in front of the plant safety manager, who  said, “Please, doc, give it to him.  He’s been working 16 hours a day for the last 10 weeks.”

I rarely find that kind of sympathy coming from management; I wrote the note from my heart.

No one should work doctors’ hours except doctors.  I understand why management set things up this way.  Housing comes at a premium, workers want to maximize the return on their travel investment.

I see the human cost.

On my last day here, a Sunday on call, I walked back from the Medical Center.  With patients tucked in, and no work expected for a couple of hours, I stepped into the rain, under the sky completely overcast.  I walked two blocks downhill to the main drag, Nordic Drive, and a block up to the hardware store, past cannery workers looking lost and exhausted, speaking English, Spanish, French, Patois, and Amharic.  I bought a 3 day fishing permit to start Monday.

I turned up Nordic Drive, walking uphill, south, between the canneries and the cannery housing.  A block ahead, I saw a tall, thin young man with an enormous duffel on his back, and a blue backpack hanging in front.  He spoke to an older, shorter man, who, judging from body language, gave directions to either the ferry terminal or the airport.  The younger man appeared confused.

As I passed the pair, I heard the young man say, “I don’t understand why.”

The older man said, “Because you’re terminated.”

The young man had spent close to a thousand dollars to get here, had worked horrible hours, and faced an unscheduled departure.

I kept walking up the hill.  Within a hundred paces I left behind the cannery noise, industry and commerce, the large Victorian homes built a hundred years ago at the edge of town, past the top of the hill, to where Nordic Drive runs along Wrangell Narrows and the residential area with its pocket parks comes almost to the water.  A murder of crows gathered on the phone lines.  A bald eagle glided across the water.  Gulls gathered on the intertidal by the thousand.

I thought about drama, irony, contrast, and meaning, and how context makes all the difference.

Tomorrow we’ll start winding this trip up.



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