Sen. Jeff Merkley improved his oyster-shucking skills last week.
The U.S. senator visited Pacific Seafood in Bay City and Hampton Lumber Company in Tillamook on a tour of local businesses Oct. 11.
“We love having our representatives here visiting us and see what we do and why we do it,” Miranda Ries, director of regulatory affairs with Pacific Seafood, said. “It’s so much more impactful when they can touch it, feel it and understand what we do.”
During Merkley’s tour of Pacific Seafood, he watched and learned about shucking oysters and preparing them for consumers.
“You’ve never had cold hands until you’ve done this process for six hours,” Ries said, adding employees process between 1,200 and 1,500 gallons of oysters a day.
Following the tour, Merkley and officials with Pacific Seafood enjoyed clam chowder and several oyster dishes from the Fish Peddler’s menu and discussed state and national issues.
“We’re 1,800 housing units short for the employees we have [in the county],” Pacific Seafood General Manager Whitey Forsman told Merkley, while also asking about what can be done about immigration. “Our plant is at half capacity without these workers.”
Merkley responded with discussing a 2013 bill that would have reformed immigration and allowing undocumented aliens a 13-year path to citizenship.
“I still believe that is the foundation for how we restore our immigration mess,” Merkley said. “We need our agriculture and restaurant communities to weigh in because they have sway with Republicans.”
Merkley added he doesn’t want to create a permanent class of sub-citizens – which he believes simply issuing work permits would do, as opposed to some path toward citizenship.
“You’re never brought into full participation in society,” he said.
Ries said Pacific Seafood has a labor supply and demand problem.
“We have good-paying jobs and the opportunity to fill them, but no one to take them,” she said, “It’s an odd problem to have.”
During Merkley’s trip to Hampton, CEO Steve Zika expressed dismay about the large amount of exported timber.
“We’re at 75 percent of what we used to run previously because of exports,” the CEO told the senator, adding the export facility that was proposed for Newport could have caused the Tillamook mill to close.
Mill Manager Mark Elston took several minutes to tell Merkley what good Hampton is doing in the Tillamook area.
“We’re proud of the environmental improvements we’ve made,” Elston said.
He also explained to the senator the work Hampton has done to partner with Tillamook High School to improve Holden Creek.
“The invasive species are out and high school students are monitoring it – it used to be a polluted creek, but no more,” he said.
Elston also described the consortium Hampton, Tillamook High School, Tillamook Bay Community College and Tillamook County Creamery Association are apart of to help develop trade skills within Tillamook.
“It’s a good model. We’re trying to take this into other communities we’re [Hampton] in,” Zika added. “It helps develop skills. Not everyone needs to go to a four-year school.”
Elston said it has provided the opportunity to train people in-house at Hampton.
“Let’s grow our own,” he said.
Merkley agreed to the value of using the school system to help students develop skills.
“When I grew up, everyone was building things in their garage – families had the tools and the materials,” Merkley said, “It’s just not how it is anymore. Kids are learning only in schools.”