Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, right, speaks during a press conference on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)

Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, right, speaks during a press conference on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: In support of working Alaskans

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

I think it’s crucial that we support hard working Alaskans, especially when they’ve become ill or injured on the job and need money from funds that they have paid into. Thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 93 by the Legislature this past week, licensed Alaska commercial fishermen will have greater financial support from the Alaska Fisherman’s Fund when they file a claim. The bill unanimously passed the Senate last May, before passing the House 39-1. It now goes to Governor Dunleavy for his consideration.

Established in 1951, the Fishermen’s Fund provides for the treatment and care of licensed commercial fishermen who have been injured in Alaska while fishing offshore or on shore when they are in active crew status. A portion of resident and nonresident commercial fishing licenses and permit fees provides the Fund’s revenue.

The Alaska Fishermen’s Fund Advisory and Appeals Council brought the need to increase the statutory limits on benefits payments to my attention. I introduced SB 93 through the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, which I chair, and had the privilege of carrying the bill through the Legislative process. The bill increases from $10,000 to $15,000 the maximum payout for any one injury or disablement. Because the bill is funded by the fishermen, safeguards were put into statute to ensure that if the fund balance falls below set points, the limits on payouts will decrease in order to avoid having to raise fees.

Commercial fishers are not covered under Workers’ Compensation, and if crew member’s medical costs are above the maximum payouts, the vessel owner is then liable for the remainder. Vessel owners generally purchase protection and indemnity (P&I) insurance with deductibles at the statutory payout limit. However, policies have risen in price at the same time as operating costs have increased and labor shortages have impacted bottom lines. As a result, many owners have purchased policies with a higher deductible to control costs or foregone purchasing a policy all together. This leaves vessel owners at risk of losing their entire operation and their crew members financially exposed.

To address this concern, SB 93 increases the maximum amount paid to a vessel owner to cover their insurance deductible for a qualifying crewmember’s illness or injury from $5,000 to $15,000. This encourages vessel owners to purchase coverage as they can do so at a lower cost due to the higher deductible and helps keep them in operation while ensuring their crew members’ expenses are covered.

The coming week will be a busy one for my office. SB 161, which improves property tax breaks for farmers has its first hearing in the House. SB 181, which would provide better outcomes for kids in our foster care system is up in the Senate Finance Committee. Finally, in the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee, I will present SB 174, creating flags to honor those who have died in service to our country or while on duty in a police or fire department. I believe it’s important to honor the selfless sacrifice made by these incredible individuals and their families.

Sen. Bjorkman can be reached at 907-283-7996 or via email at Sen.Jesse.Bjorkman@akleg.gov.

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