Many Eastern Shore crab houses hoping for a lucky break from the federal government now expect to remain mostly idle through the summer, without the migrant laborers needed to perform the painstaking picking to produce tubs of jumbo lump meat.
In a supplemental lottery held this month, U.S. immigration officials approved visa applications for only one of those “picking houses,” where smaller crabs are processed for meat sold in restaurants and grocery stores.
Most of the rest of the family-owned seafood businesses in the Dorchester County community of Hoopers Island were denied workers again through a visa program that is reporting surging demand across the country.
The H-2B work visas were awarded by lottery for the first time this year because of the overwhelming interest from landscapers, pool cleaning companies and golf course managers.
The results of the lottery mean the crab picking houses are missing an estimated 35 percent of their seasonal workforce, which could make it difficult for the industry to supply customers and may drive up the price of Maryland crab meat.
Jay Newcomb, the owner of Old Salty’s Restaurant, said the plant he opened two years ago to supply the restaurant in Fishing Creek has been sitting idle without the dozen or so workers it needs. Newcomb blamed the new system of allocating visas, saying he filed his applications Jan. 1, expecting the first-come, first-served system the industry has gotten used to.
“If they went first-in, first-out we wouldn’t have this issue,” he said.
The industry relies heavily on Mexican laborers who return to Maryland year after year to pick crabs in the summer and fall. It has been using H-2B visas to hire crab pickers for more than two decades, ever since the Eastern Shore women who used to do the work aged out of the profession.
Seafood companies say they can’t find Americans to do the work because it’s so difficult, and it only pays about six or eight months out of the year.
Bill Seiling, the director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said the switch to a lottery system means the future of all the crab houses is precarious because they no longer have a reliable source of labor.
“The present system is broken,” Seiling said. “Without some kind of a fix, we’re going to end up in another year or so with no industry at all.”
The visa shortage could be devastating for Hoopers Island and the larger seafood economy on the lower Eastern Shore, where crabs tend to be smaller than those harvested farther up the Chesapeake Bay. The watermen who gather the crabs, the businesses that supply the picking plants and the buyers of crab meat all stand to be affected.
Newcomb said the picking plants are an especially important part of the industry in the fall, when cooler weather makes outdoor crab feasts less appealing. Most of Maryland’s nearly $60 million annual crab harvest is sold steamed in bushels around the state, but a share of smaller and mostly female crustaceans are picked for their meat.
“The watermen are very concerned what's going to happen later in the year,” he said.
A.E. Phillips & Son was the only Hoopers Island crab-picking house that recently got word that its application for 30 guest worker visas was approved. Another processor, J.M. Clayton Co., got its visas on time earlier this spring.
But Morgan Tolley, general manager of A.E. Phillips, wasn’t in a celebratory mood when reached Monday. While he expects to have workers in place in time to supply Fourth of July picnics, the larger seafood industry he competes in is missing a significant chunk of its typical workforce of several hundred guest workers.
“I’m very sad that my fellow friendly competitors did not get their visas,” he said. “There will be a trickle-down effect as the season goes on.”
The handful of crab houses that won’t have workers have been left to look for alternatives.
“We’re just going to have to make the best of a bad situation,” said Aubrey Vincent, sales manager for Lindy’s Seafood.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held a lottery for 15,000 additional visas June 7, after months of outcry from businesses across the country over the results of a lottery held over the winter. Federal labor officials received 81,000 applications for only 33,000 H-2B visas made available for work from April through September.
The industry is now looking to politicians in Washington to resolve the problem.
Congress helped push for the visa cap to be raised, and some members continue to push for further reforms. Rep. Andy Harris said there remains a chance that the federal Department of Homeland Security could offer up another batch of visas, given continuing demand for them. Companies applied for about 29,000 guest workers in the latest lottery.
Meanwhile, he said, lawmakers also are discussing longer-term fixes, whether through a permanent increase in the H-2B visa cap, revisions to visa policies that could allow more employers to hire under an agricultural worker program that isn’t capped, or a change to the H-2B lottery process to allow employers to get at least some of the visas they request.
“The problem was, it was all or none,” said Harris, Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress, who represents the Eastern Shore. “Hopefully we’ll try to change that for next year.”
Meanwhile, state officials say they hope to help with an extra $375,000 for a state seafood marketing initiative, set for approval Wednesday by the Board of Public Works. The Maryland Department of Agriculture program is aimed at promoting sales and marketing of local crab meat, which faces strong competition from overseas imports that are not always labeled as such.
"We remain committed to Maryland's watermen and seafood processors, and are currently exploring options at the state level to help support this iconic industry,” department spokesman Jason Schellhardt said.
But Vincent and others on Hoopers Island aren’t holding out hope there will be any more chances for visas this year. Even if more were allocated, Seiling said that once visas are awarded it takes about a month for workers to arrive and with each day that passes the end of the season in late fall gets closer.
Lindy’s is getting by with about 20 local workers, many of whom are putting in overtime to increase production, and Vincent called in a temporary agency that recently provided two more laborers. But the company would be much busier if it had been awarded the 100 visas it requested.