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Amid immigration debate, Maryland crab industry looks for rebound after getting few foreign workers last year

A year ago, Maryland’s crab industry teetered on the precipice, with nearly half of its picking houses unable to secure enough visas for the migrant laborers their businesses rely on.

The crab houses suffered, forced to sell whole crabs for far less than picked meat — and some reported revenue fell by half or more.

This year will be better for the state’s crab businesses after their owners set aside New Year’s partying and scrambled to be among the first to apply for visas — eventually securing a sufficient number of laborers, mostly from Mexico, for the coming season. But they say the federal guest worker program remains mired in politics and overwhelmed by demand.

And they worry they won’t be so fortunate next year. “It could be that we were just extremely lucky,” said Bill Seiling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

Seiling and others said the H-2B visa program, which lets a limited number of foreign laborers work at seasonal jobs beginning April 1, still isn’t allowing nearly enough workers into the country and Maryland’s crab-picking plants could be left shorthanded in future years.

The program was described by Seiling — and operators of the mostly family-owned seafood businesses — as “antiquated” and “broken.”

The crab houses say they need 400 to 500 foreign workers to help pick the meat sold in restaurants and supermarkets. Around the country, such seasonal laborers are also coveted by hotels, restaurants, landscape companies and amusement parks that say they can’t find enough domestic workers in a strong economy, a claim some critics question.

The program has used a first-come, first-served system to award the visas, a process which forces thousands of businesses to flood a U.S. Department of Labor website to land a place in the queue. So many applicants — including Maryland crab houses — logged into the website in the first moments of Jan. 1 seeking worker visas that the system crashed within five minutes, according to the department.

Nearly 23,000 log-in attempts were made compared to 721 in the same period a year earlier. The businesses requested more than 96,000 workers, but only 33,000 were made available by the Trump administration for April 1. Another 33,000 can be requested for Oct. 1.

After the Jan. 1 problems, the Labor Department restarted the process six days later. To be fair to the businesses, the agency said it recorded the time stamp of each application down to the “millisecond.”

Somehow, the “seven or eight” Maryland crab houses that applied were successful, according to Seiling.

“I don’t know of any that haven’t gotten their workers,” he said. “We wish we knew what happened so we could do it again next year.”

Some of the crab-picking plants said they have become experts by necessity at navigating the complicated application procedure, and some hired consultants to help.

The success of the Eastern Shore plants’ efforts contrasts markedly with last year, when nearly half failed to get any visas through a program lottery.

Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, both Republicans, urged federal Homeland Security officials to release more visas beyond the annual allotment of 66,000. In June, the government awarded 15,000 more, but many crab houses again lost out in the all-or-nothing lottery.

Without enough pickers, family businesses such as Lindy’s Seafood in Dorchester County “had a lot of conversations that were really scary about how are we going to get through this,” said sales manager Aubrey Vincent.

She said Lindy’s — which usually has annual sales of about $9 million to $10 million — had to unload many crabs whole instead of selling their meat to restaurants and grocery stores much more profitably.

Selling crabs whole usually yields at least 50 percent less money, Seiling said.

“It really, really hurt us,” Vincent said. “I was down 50 to 60 percent in production and sales revenue in 2018.”

Determined to avoid a repeat, Vincent cut her New Year’s Eve celebration short so she could be among the first to apply at midnight on the federal site. Sitting at a Philadelphia bar with family and friends, she tried to log in to the system.

“Everybody had to think I was insane,” she said. “I was freaking out about H-2B. You couldn’t log in. It would freeze. What we’re dealing with is an antiquated system.”

The Labor Department reopened the application process on Jan. 7 at 2 p.m.

“My filing time was 2:09 and I had no idea how many people were in front of me or behind me,” she said.

But she learned this month that Lindy’s will receive all 105 of the workers it requested. In 2018, it didn’t receive any workers in the spring-summer season, although it got about 70 in the fall.

“We’re incredibly lucky,” she said. “This almost cost us our family business last year.”

The Labor Department said last month that it plans to switch to a random selection process — essentially a lottery system akin to what it used in the past. “The department believes these procedural changes will provide for fairer and more orderly assignment and review of applications,” it said.

The new system is subject to a public comment period but is scheduled to begin July 3.

Maryland crab houses don’t believe a lottery is the answer.

“It's going to be luck of the draw,” said Jay Newcomb, owner of Old Salty’s Restaurant in Fishing Creek. “You won't know who will get approved.”

Such uncertainty makes it hard to plan ahead.

“How can anybody run a business if they don’t know if they're going to have workers or not?” Seiling said. “You have to order cans and boxes and all kinds of supplies ahead of time. This is a specialized industry.”

Many of the crabs sold in Maryland come from the Carolinas or Louisiana, and some meat comes from Asia or Venezuela. But a premium is placed on local meat, with a state program called “True Blue” to identify and market Maryland crabs.

Visa shortages have been a perennial issue for the industry since the last generations of Eastern Shore women who once picked crabmeat aged out of the tedious seasonal work. In the 1980s, crab houses started bringing workers from Mexico through a program that lets them live and work in the United States during the warmer months and then return home in the winter.

Demand for the program has surged with a thriving economy making it harder for various businesses to find U.S. workers, and the crab processing plants complain that the government has ignored their calls to expand the available visas. The plant operators say it's difficult to get domestic workers for seasonal, manual-labor jobs in the remote watermen’s villages on the Eastern Shore.

Pickers are guaranteed an hourly rate but can make more based on their production, and some earn more than $500 a week.

“What we really need are more visas,” Newcomb said.

Last year, Newcomb said he didn’t receive the 14 Mexican laborers he sought and “revenue probably was 60 percent of what it would normally be.” This year, he got all 14.

In Dorchester County, where Newcomb and most of the other crab meat processors are located, acting economic development director Susan Banks called last year’s worker shortage “a hit to the county. We rely on those workers.”

Newcomb and others in the Maryland industry believe the visa program has become unfairly connected to the larger immigration debate in Washington. President Donald Trump has moved for more aggressive immigration enforcement to reduce the numbers of undocumented immigrants that he says take American jobs.

“We get lumped in with the immigration [debate] but these workers are not immigrants. They don’t get a green card,” Seiling said.

Before receiving any seasonal workers, businesses must certify they were unable to fill the positions domestically.

Critics of the program argue that the guest worker visas shut out American workers and lower the bar on what is appropriate in the market to pay relatively unskilled labor.

H-2B laborers "depress the wages of low-skilled and low-educated Americans," Preston Huennekens, a research associate at the Center for Immigration Studies, recently wrote on the center's website. The Washington research group advocates for limiting immigration.

Huennekens argued that Congress should instead create “a domestic guestworker program” that would encourage the recruitment of local residents having difficulty finding jobs.

But Newcomb, who is also a Dorchester County commissioner, said it's difficult to recruit local workers.

“We have tried everything under the sun for years and years,” he said. “It's seasonal [work] and we’re a little fishing village down on an island.”

The foreign laborers include many women who have become accustomed to making the annual pilgrimage from Mexico to Maryland and rely on the income to feed their families.

“Obviously the program is being overwhelmed, but there has been no move to change the law to reflect the changes in the economy,” Seiling said.

In a March 7 letter, Democratic U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin urged U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to grant more H-2B visas.

“The lack of stability and certainty within the H-2B program has been detrimental to Maryland businesses,” their letter said. “Many of these businesses have been in Maryland for generations and have relied on these short-term workers to keep up with market demands.”

In a letter Thursday, Hogan also called on the Trump administration to address the visa shortage.

Another year of hardship like 2018 “could permanently damage Maryland’s seafood industry, causing these iconic family businesses to close and having a devastating impact on jobs in our state," Hogan wrote. “The loss of these jobs and processors will threaten the livelihoods of commercial crabbers and watermen, and jeopardize our $355 million seafood industry.”

Harris, whose congressional district includes the Eastern Shore, noted in his own letter March 6 that Congress granted Homeland Security authority to release up to 69,320 additional visas during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

His letter, signed by more than 100 other lawmakers, urged Nielsen “to release, without delay and to the greatest extent allowed by law, additional H-2B visas sufficient to meet the certified demand of our seasonal employers.”

Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton declined to address whether additional visas are being considered.

“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on congressional correspondence,”Houlton said in an email. “The Secretary is reviewing our guest worker programs and will respond as appropriate.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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