Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that, in a letter dated May 7, 2009 and in response to Governor Togiola’s letter of May 1, he has informed the Governor that minimum wage is not the reason for Samoa Packing relocating to Georgia. The full text of the Congressman’s letter, which was copied to the President and Senators, and the Speaker and Representatives, is included below.
Dear Governor Togiola:
I am writing in response to the recent announcement by Chicken of the Sea/Samoa Packing that it will close operations in American Samoa effective September of this year. I am also writing in response to your letter of May 1, 2009. Enclosed for your information is a copy of my letter of May 7 to Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which explains my position regarding the plant’s closure, and my request for his assistance.
While you have suggested that the cannery is leaving due to minimum wage increases, the company has made it clear that minimum wage is only one of many reasons that influenced its decision and, frankly speaking, I believe minimum wage was the least of its reasons, especially considering that the company is relocating to Lyons, Georgia where effective July 24, 2009, minimum wage rates are $7.25 per hour, compared to American Samoa’s current rate of $4.26 and American Samoa’s projected rate of $4.76 per hour effective July 2009.
That Chicken of the Sea would relocate and immediately pay workers in Georgia double the moneys is not fair to our Samoan workers who spent the last 50-years making Chicken of the Sea one of the most profitable brands of canned tuna in America. It is also not fair that our cannery workers have been paid way below the national average when the vast majority of ASG workers have salaries comparable to national minimum wage standards.
If it is possible to increase salaries of departments by as much as $10,000, why would ASG leaders not support an increase of 50-cents per hour for private sector tuna cannery workers? Regardless of what your position is about the poorest among us, now is not the time to be pointing fingers. We need to work together to find a solution, and my office has already had discussions with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).
Enclosed for your information is a point of contact to assist you with ASG’s application for national emergency funds to provide job training for our workers. According to the DOL, the request for this assistance must be made by you, and must originate from the Governor’s office. Your staff may contact Adri Jayaratne at email@example.com for further information on how to apply for a national emergency grant. This information may also be accessed at http://www.doleta.gov/neg/eligibility.cfm. I will send a letter of support to the U.S. Secretary of Labor prior to the submission of ASG’s application.
However, before any action can be taken by Congress or the DOL, I have been informed that ASG will need to provide the DOL and Congress with documentation showing the legal status of our cannery workers. Samoa Packing’s current workforce consists of 2,172 active employees of which 274, or 13%, are American Samoans, 87%, or 1,821 workers are Western Samoans, and 3.5%, or 77 employees, are other foreign nationals. The total payroll for all workers for the cannery including benefits annually is approximately $22-$23 million.
I have been informed that ASG will have to certify the legal status of our workers at Chicken of the Sea/Samoa Packing before we can expect federal assistance. Even though most of our tuna cannery workers are from Western Samoa, many of them are married to U.S. nationals and U.S. citizens and, for purposes of helping these families, I am hopeful that you will send me the necessary immigration documentation showing that these workers do have legal status so that we may move forward with assisting them.
I am also hopeful that ASG will inform my office of what kind of trust fund is in place for our local workers in the case of unemployment. As you know, after all these years, ASG has chosen not to participate in the federal Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. Under terms of the UI program, when eligible workers lose their jobs, the UI program may provide them with income support for 6 months based on certain calculations. These unemployment benefits are paid out of a federal trust fund. However, the money for the trust fund comes from taxes States impose on employers.
The State of Hawaii, for example, has protected its workers by taxing employers like Hawaiian Air. The State of Hawaii then sends a portion of those taxes to the federal government to hold in trust for workers who may become unemployed should Hawaiian Air lay off some of its workers. Once a worker is laid off, that worker can apply for unemployment benefits and the federal government will send that worker a check from the trust fund.
When workers in American Samoa get laid off, they are not eligible for UI benefits because ASG has not sent any money to the federal government to hold in trust for our local workers. Since ASG chose not to have the federal government hold money in trust, I am hopeful that ASG has held those funds in trust at the local level from the taxes it has collected from StarKist and Chicken of the Sea so that our workers can seek immediate relief and unemployment checks come September. In the case of layoffs or closures, unemployment compensation should have been at the heart of ASG’s lease agreements with the canneries.
If ASG has no local trust fund in place, I would hope that ASG would support my efforts to bring ASG under the federal umbrella. My office has contacted the House Ways and Means Committee and I have every intention of working closely with Chairman Charles Rangel to devise a program that will require ASG to set aside a portion of the taxes it collects either in a local or federal trust fund so that future workers will be protected in the case of layoffs or plant closures. Like every American, our workers deserve protection, and they are entitled to peace of mind in knowing that their local government reserved a portion of taxes for them, in case of their unemployment. Every State plus Puerto Rico, D.C., and the Virgin Islands provide their workers with this kind of safety net, and Guam established a modified program. It is time for ASG to follow suit, if it has not done so already.
While I am seeking a $20 million emergency set aside in the supplemental appropriations bill, and while I will also ask to increase operations and CIP funding for ASG, I am not sure how successful federal efforts might be, especially given our tuna canneries were recently provided with a $33 million federal income tax break at a time when the United States is faced with an unprecedented financial crisis. Prior to this extension, each cannery received over $5 million per year in federal tax breaks for almost 20 years, which equates to well over $200 million, not to mention the tax breaks they got for the 20 or so years preceding this.
Also, in 1999, at cost of $600,000 from the U.S. Congress, a U.S. Department of the Interior Secretarial Commission was established to examine American Samoa’s economic condition and make recommendations to ASG and the Department of the Interior on how to diversify and expand American Samoa’s economy. This was the first time in American Samoa’s 100-year relationship with the United States that a Secretarial Commission was established.
This Secretarial Commission was supported by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, chaired by the former Governor of Hawaii John Waihee, and administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior. You served as a commission member. I served as an ex officio member.
In conjunction with the people of American Samoa, the Commission, over about a two -year time period, developed an economic plan which offered specific recommendations on how to diversify the Territory’s local economy based on the will of the people. In fact, over 8,000 people were surveyed at the request of the Commission by the American Samoa Community College. In April 2002, the Secretarial Commission issued its final report. To date, the U.S. Department of the Interior has failed to move forward on this plan and I must say our local government officials also have not acted.
I will continue to update you regarding my efforts at the federal level, and I look forward to working with you and the Fono to discuss possible options and new steps forward.