Visa restrictions impacting seafood packing houses

An H2B visa worker checks crabmeat for cartilage. (David Harp Photo)

At Lindy’s Seafood, workers receive $4.50 per pound of crab meat they pick. That adds up to roughly $12 to $16 per hour — about the same pay as a home health aide or preschool teacher.

Dorchester County may have one of the highest unemployment rates in Maryland, but Lindy’s and other crab processors in the remote southern half of the county still struggle to find local takers for their jobs. If the repetitive nature of the work doesn’t repel them, the seasonal schedule usually does, said sales manager Aubrey Vincent.

“They can’t afford to move here for seasonal work,” she said.

So the iconic Chesapeake Bay industry depends almost exclusively on temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico. Crab processors have grown accustomed to impromptu labor shortages caused by shifting economic and political winds, but nothing could have prepared them for this year’s gale, they say.

In Dorchester, home to 90 percent of Maryland’s crab meat production, three crab-picking houses this year received their full quota of temporary work visas, and the other five got none. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services awards applicants either the full number of requested visas, or none.

That led to a shortage of about 40 percent of the workforce, said Bill Seiling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

The temporary visas, known as H-2B visas, are made available annually to workers in seafood, landscaping, construction and other seasonal fields. To be eligible, employers must prove there aren’t enough domestic workers willing or able to fill the positions.

This year, the federal government received requests for more than 81,000 visas nationwide, far surpassing the cap of 33,000 for jobs extending from April through September. Under pressure from affected industries, federal immigration officials released another 15,000 visas in the summer.

But only one additional Dorchester crab processor got its share of visas — A.E. Phillips & Son. Four are still missing their workers, leaving the industry with a 35 percent labor shortfall, Seiling said.

Without enough workers picking crabs, the industry faces a bottleneck in a supply chain that stretches from crab pots on the Bay to plastic tubs of crab meat sold to grocery stores and restaurants. Buyers will simply get their crab meat from the Gulf of Mexico or other countries if the Chesapeake region can’t supply it, Seiling said.

If the problem isn’t fixed soon, Seiling fears it could be the death knell for some Maryland seafood companies.

“These are all small, family businesses,” he said. “They don’t have huge stores of money. Most of these companies can probably survive this year. But if this happens again next year, you would probably see a lot of companies going out of business.”

Jack Brooks, co-owner of J. M. Clayton Company in Cambridge, was one of the lucky ones. The processor got its 95 visas early in the season, which began in April. But Brooks wasn’t celebrating.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Brooks, president of the American Seafood Jobs Alliance.

What made this year’s visa process so troublesome, crab processors say, was the Trump administration’s shift from a system that awarded visas based on a first-come, first-serve process to one that placed all employers into a lottery, regardless of when they applied.

“The company that did the worst job and filed on the last day got visas, and you didn’t,” Seiling said. “We thought that was very unfair, but what can you do?”

In Dorchester, where Trump carried nearly 56 percent of the vote in 2016, the policy has soured some supporters on the president, Brooks said.

“I don’t know if it’s helping him much,” he added. “Hell, this is something that could be fixed so damn easily.”

An official with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency is committed to helping fix a broken system.

“USCIS is focused on ensuring the integrity of the immigration system and protecting the interests of U.S. workers,” spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement. “We are committed to reforming employment-based immigration programs, so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible.”

But the road to reform will have to travel through Capitol Hill.

Crab processors are pushing for a permanent increase in the cap on guest workers, but they admit that will be an uphill battle with an administration and Republican-controlled Congress that have shown virtually no appetite for liberalizing immigration policies. Instead, they pin their hopes on alternatives, such as carving out the seafood industry for its own pool of visas or renewing a measure that expired last year that exempted returning workers from the cap.

Supporters say such measures would create jobs for U.S. workers, pointing to a 2008 Maryland Sea Grant analysis suggesting that each arrival of a temporary worker generates 2.5 jobs for Americans. For example, a cut in a crab processor’s workforce would reduce the workload among companies that support the industry, such as commercial refrigeration firms, the analysis said.

In June, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, sponsored a bill that would, among other things, create a returning worker exemption, but the party’s right wing quashed it.

The situation is less dire in Goodlatte’s home state. The labor force was 90 percent staffed after two out of the three processors received all of their guest workers, said Johnny Graham, owner of the Graham & Rollins seafood plant in Hampton, which got its visas.

Ironically, the seafood industry’s breaking point on the Chesapeake could be triggered by a bountiful crab harvest.

Through the end of July, processors hadn’t been “overwhelmed” by picking crabs, said Vincent, whose picking house has been operating with 30 workers instead of the usual 100. “But I’m worried they’ll come in late because everything has been coming late this year.”

An unusually long and cold winter kept watermen from filling their boats for the first few months of the season. The cold killed 16 percent of adult crabs in Maryland and 8 percent in Virginia, according to last winter’s dredge survey. Overall, it estimated that the Bay contained 371 million crabs of all sizes, down from 455 million last year.

Catches are likely to pick up as younger crabs grow large enough to be harvested, fishery managers say.

Larger crabs caught in the fresher water north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge are sold whole in Baltimore, New York and other large cities. Crab processors typically buy smaller crustaceans, which are found in the saltier waters south of the bridge.

So crabbers based on Tangier Island in Virginia’s waters have been watching the visa controversy closely. At least 75 percent of the fleet’s crabs are purchased by a boat from Lindy’s Seafood, said Dan Dize, a Tangier waterman. Since that company didn’t get its foreign workers, he finds himself in the strange position of rooting against full crab baskets.

“A Bay full of crabs is not what we’re after” because such a supply glut would depress prices, Dize said. As of the end of July, he added, the worker shortage hadn’t hurt him much “because the prices have been good, and there hasn’t been an abundance of crabs in our area.”

“But,” Dize warned, “it’s picking

up now.”

Brooks agreed: “I fear things are starting to tip. I’ve been turning down offers for crabs left and right the last six, eight days.”

One recent morning at Lindy’s, hairnet-clad workers picked meat out of crab shells on either side of a long line of stainless-steel tables. Mexican pop music played over a speaker as pickers filled tub after tub with succulent lump meat.

Vincent said she has 18 foreign workers because their visas from last fall are still valid. But she’s without more than two-thirds of her needed labor force. So she has been doling out overtime and hoping that she can keep pace with the catch.

Meantime, Vincent is looking to the future. She has applied for her share of the 33,000 visas set to become available in October and installed pasteurization equipment so any excess crab meat that arrives in the summer can be processed in the fall. That extends the shelf life from four months to 6–18 months, she said.

The larger immigration debate has muddied the waters surrounding the need for temporary visas, she said. She has heard people criticize crab processors for hiring foreign workers instead of Americans. To them, she has a message: “Send them my way.”

“If we don’t solve the problem in the future,” Vincent added, “people will stop buying Maryland product because they can’t depend on the consistency and the availability.”

Jeremy Cox, a staff writer for the Chesapeake Bay Journal, is based in Salisbury.

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