By Joseph Robertia
In Florida, they wear flip-flops. In New York, it’s Prada. In Alaska, XTRATUF boots reign as the supreme footwear of the masses.
Dog mushers working on glaciers wear the insulated versions to keep their feet warm. Oil field workers all the way to the North Slope favor their ruggedness. From fishermen to foresters, cannery workers to clam diggers, under rain suits or wedding attire, the ubiquitous, brown-and-cream-colored boots are part of standard Alaska attire.
“I have three pairs that I’ve had for two years, and two of the pairs were hand-me-downs that I got from someone who’d had them for two years themselves, and they’re still holding together,” said Austin Petty, of Soldotna.
Petty wears XTRATUFs nearly every day year-round, whether at work or at play. The boots are his four-season footwear.
“I work at a cannery and I wear them all day there. They’re warm, comfortable and you can walk on slime-covered docks and even on fish and not slip. Outside of work I’ll wear them for just about everything, too. I’ve hunted black bear in them and just this week went ice fishing in them,” he said.
Despite the brand’s devoted following in Alaska, the reliability of XTRATUFs came into question earlier this year after the production of the boots switched from being made in the U.S. to being manufactured in China. Honeywell — XTRATUF’s manufacturer and representative in the U.S. — assured vendors and consumers alike that the boots would be built the same and there would be no changes to any components. But common consensus has persisted that the boots just aren’t as tough anymore.
The rubber of the Chinese-made boots is said to be considerably slimmer on the calf, and that the rubber of the Illinois-made boots seemed oilier than its substitute. Most concerning is reports that the foreign-made boots begin to separate at the heel within weeks instead of years.
“I have some and from personal experience they’re not as durable as they used to be,” said Toby Burke, a wildlife technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, who spends a good portion of his day wearing XTRATUFs in the field.
“I spend a lot of time standing in water or cutting through wet areas when doing surveys, and they’re what I wear, but they do seem to be falling apart faster,” he said. “They don’t seem to stand up in the corner like they used to, either, now they kind of flop over. I spend a lot of time walking through the woods in them and they don’t seem to be as resistant to puncture by sticks, either.”
This is frustrating, not only because wet feet at work are less than ideal, but also because Burke paid more for his XTRATUFs than he would have spent had he purchased some other brand.
“(XTRATUFs) are more expensive, but you’re paying for good quality, not junk,” he said.
Local vendors of the boots have heard similar complaints about the foreign-made boots from their customers.
“We were getting them back leaking and with the cream-colored sole coming off,” said Brandi Pennison, store manager of Alaska Industrial Hardware in Kenai, where they sell, by her rough estimate, thousands of pairs of the boots annually to fishermen, platform workers and others.
Pennison said that Honeywell — which cited the problems with the boots as stemming from the poor training given to employees in the Chinese plant, rather than the material or technique used — has been good about recalling the poorly made boots, and refunding or exchanging them for a better pair.
“The manufacturer knows about the problem and they’ve been great about fixing it. The newer ones now seem to be great and are supposed to be even better than the originals due to an additional coating,” she said.
Knowing some products can suffer a decline in quality once the manufacturing is moved overseas, Mike Sweeney of Sweeney’s Clothing in Soldotna stocked up on the U.S.-made boots before they were discontinued, and has largely been able to ride out the recall storm as a result.
“I know my customers, so I believed it would be a smart thing to stock up on the U.S.-made ones before the others ever came out. I bought what was about $40,000 worth, which was hundreds of pairs. But they’re pretty well gone now. I have some U.S. ones left, but not in all sizes,” Sweeney said.
Once Sweeney did begin selling the Chinese boots, he said that the manufacturer responded quickly to address the problem pairs, but this also resulted in more work at his store.
“They worked on it right away. They were concerned and still are. It took a lot of work on our part, too, to exchange the problem ones. The whole thing is a shame — that it happened, that it had to go overseas in the first place, and that going overseas didn’t change our price, it just made things cheaper for them,” Sweeney said.
Complaints about the defective boots went further up than store managers. Sen. Mark Begich sent correspondences to Honeywell chiding the company for the decline in the boots’ quality after manufacturing was moved to China.
In response, Richard Graber, Honeywell senior vice president for global government relations, said the decision to move manufacturing to China was based on what it would have cost to update the company’s 90-year-old plant in Rock Island, Ill., to meet modern standards for productivity and safety. Graber also stated that U.S. international tax rules are not competitive and are contributing to the outflow of American jobs.
Working to prevent more businesses going overseas in the future, Begich took part in introducing a Bipartisan Tax Fairness and Simplification Act of 2011 to cut the six existing corporate tax brackets to a flat corporate tax rate of 24 percent.
According to a press release from Begich’s office in Anchorage, the bill also includes provisions to allow most small businesses to expense all equipment and inventory costs, and provides incentives for corporations that have moved overseas, like Honeywell, to reinvest in the United States.
Begich’s bill, formally known as Senate Bill 727, is currently with the Senate Finance Committee and may be addressed along with other tax reform proposals during the next session.
But in the immediate future, for those hoping for XTRATUFs to return to U.S. manufacturing, it’s a case of tough luck.