A crucial labor pipeline for Maryland seafood businesses reopened Friday when the Department of Homeland Security promised as many as 6,000 more visas for foreign workers.
Seafood processors and watermen on the Eastern Shore rely on the H-2B visa program to supply workers willing to perform the grueling, dirty jobs necessary to sustain their business. Not enough Americans have been willing to take on the work, they say.
More than 3,000 guest workers were certified last year by the U.S. Department of Labor to perform jobs such as crab picking and landscaping in Maryland. But the number of such temporary visas is capped annually at 66,000, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services hit that limit March 26, leaving many in the state's seafood industry short on workers for the April 1 start of crab season.
On Friday, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she had persuaded Homeland Security, which oversees the immigration service, to perform an audit in which 3,000 to 6,000 unused visas were discovered and now will be made available nationwide.
"It's good news. That's the bottom line," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. "It's a great opportunity for our companies to stay in business. If you don't have the workers, you don't stay in business."
Mikulski, a Democrat, said she found that more than 40 percent of seafood processors in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina were unable to hire enough workers for the crab season. Even some that did get visas had trouble bringing in workers because of uncertainty over the H-2B program this year, she said.
"When the seafood industry told me the cap had been reached and they couldn't get their workers, I started cutting through red tape," Mikulski said in the announcement.
She said she hand-delivered a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in April, urging him to analyze the number of guest worker visas that have gone unused.
Businesses were able to start submitting applications for workers Friday, all of which must be done on paper and sent through the mail.
Many on the Eastern Shore wasted no time in doing so, said Jack Brooks, president of J.M. Clayton Co., a seafood processor in Cambridge that has been in operation for more than a century. Brooks, who also serves as president of the seafood association, said he knew of at least seven businesses in Maryland and Virginia that haven't been able to open for the season because they lack foreign workers, most of whom come from Mexico.
Brooks, who typically hires between 80 and 100 foreign workers each summer at Clayton, estimated that Eastern Shore businesses could use another hundred or so visas.
"This is just tremendous," said Brooks. His company was able to get the necessary visas before the cap was met, but "we've got a lot of our colleagues in the region frozen out of the program. Basically they haven't been able to open. And fisherman have not been able to work because they can't get the help."
He said he spoke to one waterman who had been contemplating getting out of the business because he couldn't find anyone to hire to help on the boat, but on Friday he completed the H-2B paperwork to send off.
"In the scheme of things it's not much at all, but to these small businesses, it's everything," Brooks said. "Believe me, we'd rather turn the clock back and hire the local people. … But those people are simply not available to do this work. Not too many parents are encouraging their kids to be the best crab picker or waterman helper they can be."
The H-2B visa program, which requires employers to recruit American workers first, has helped to guarantee a labor supply for the past two decades. Workers who come through the program to Maryland to pick crabs and shuck oysters have an 80 percent return rate, Mikulski said. In 2013, the U.S. government issued 57,600 visas to foreigners for seasonal jobs, the greatest share of which are in landscaping.
Morgan Tolley, general manager of A.E. Phillips & Son, a packing plant on Hoopers Island in Dorchester County, managed before the cap was reached to get some of the 30 to 35 seasonal workers he needs this season to sort, pick and package Maryland blue crabs. But he plans to apply for about a dozen more.
"I'm getting by as best as possible," Tolley said. "I don't know if I'll even get approved to have more people in."
If he does, it could take another two months, including the workers' four-day bus ride from a consulate in California. Crab season ends in early November.
Brooks said the cap had not been a problem until the maximum was first reached in 2004. After a Mikulski-led initiative at that time, Congress temporarily exempted some returning workers from the limit. Several years later, the cap was divided into two six-month periods of 33,000 workers, to help those industries with seasonal requirements from being shut out.
During the recession, demand for workers fell in industries such as landscaping, and seafood companies found enough help.
But earlier this year, the H-2B program hit yet another snag that complicated the current worker shortage. In March, a federal court ruled that the U.S. Department of Labor had exceeded its authority in certifying employers for the program, temporarily halting the processing of applications. Later that month the court allowed the Labor Department to resume processing the applications.
As the economy has improved, demand has increased for the foreign workers.
"It's hard to find people to work in America," said Tolley, who said his industry must compete with landscape companies, hotels and resorts for the workers. Still, he said, "we are on track to have a decent season."