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‘We hold our breath every day’: Maryland crab industry counts on Mexican workers, but how will they stay safe?

Operators of crab processing plants on the Eastern Shore, such as J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, shown in this Sept. 19, 2019, photo, say they are taking unprecedented steps to control the spread of the coronavirus in Maryland. They’re cutting the size of shift crews to maximize spacing, monitoring workers’ temperatures and reserving housing in case it’s needed for quarantines.
Operators of crab processing plants on the Eastern Shore, such as J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, shown in this Sept. 19, 2019, photo, say they are taking unprecedented steps to control the spread of the coronavirus in Maryland. They’re cutting the size of shift crews to maximize spacing, monitoring workers’ temperatures and reserving housing in case it’s needed for quarantines. (Courtesy of Choptank Communicati / HANDOUT)

Desperate for jobs, Mexican crab pickers have slowly begun arriving on the Eastern Shore, where employers are eager for their services but wary of the grave challenges posed by the coronavirus in a business in which workers typically live and labor in close quarters.

This year’s crabbing season is fraught with difficult choices for the workers, who are nearly all women, as well as for an industry relying heavily on foreign labor to pick crab meat for sale in grocery stores and use in restaurants. The season began April 1, although many Marylanders don’t indulge until Memorial Day weekend.

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Crab processing plants — many of them clustered on secluded Hoopers Island in Dorchester County — say they are taking unprecedented steps. They’re cutting the size of shift crews to maximize spacing, monitoring workers’ temperatures and reserving housing in case it’s needed for quarantines.

“We hold our breath every day and hope that all these precautions work,” said Jack Brooks, one of the owners of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge and president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

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“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned for them,” said sales manager Aubrey Vincent of Lindy’s Seafood on Hoopers Island, which is still waiting for U.S. government approval to get its 85 requested workers. “What we’ll probably do is half-sized shifts, so that you’ve got more space in between.”

Laborers — some on the Eastern Shore and others still waiting to travel from Mexico — are concerned, too.

Martha Olivares Garcia, 64, of Veracruz, Mexico, is waiting to hear from her recruiter about when she can get to Maryland this spring to pick crabs. She is shown in this Sept. 4, 2019, photo on Hoopers Island.
Martha Olivares Garcia, 64, of Veracruz, Mexico, is waiting to hear from her recruiter about when she can get to Maryland this spring to pick crabs. She is shown in this Sept. 4, 2019, photo on Hoopers Island. (Thalia Juarez / Baltimore Sun)

Martha Olivares Garcia, 64, who has been a guest worker for nearly 30 years, is back home in Veracruz, Mexico, waiting to hear from her recruiter on when she can go to Maryland. While she wants to work, she said in Spanish: “Without our health, we can’t do anything and we are talking about a virus that is very contagious. That’s the most worrying thing right now.”

The U.S. Department of Labor received applications for nearly 100,000 visas in a lottery in January. In Maryland, Old Salty’s Seafood and Russell Hall Seafood on Hoopers Island, and J.M. Clayton Seafood were approved for a limited number. Old Salty’s got 14 workers and J.M. Clayton got nearly 30. Russell Hall owner Harry Phillips did not respond to questions.

But guest workers for more than a half-dozen other Maryland crab businesses — including Lindy’s, where Garcia has worked — are in limbo. That’s because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced April 2 that no additional H-2B worker visas were being released because of economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus.

Republican President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he had signed an executive order pausing immigration into the United States for 60 days to aid the economy. That didn’t appear to affect seasonal work visas, and crab processing plant operators remained hopeful that the H-2B program could resume before long, said Bill Seiling, executive vice president of the seafood industry association.

“It’s all chaos,” said Melva Guadalupe Vazquez, a 29-year-old mother of two who relies on the work each crab season to support her family in central Mexico. She remains there now, awaiting word on when she can travel.

Mexico has had more than 9,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 850 deaths. Maryland, meanwhile, has recorded more than 14,700 confirmed cases. As of Thursday, Maryland attributed 680 deaths to the disease, and an additional 68 deaths are suspected to be due to the virus.

“The women are often caught between a rock and a hard place. They need to be able to produce and meet the quotas to be able to come back."


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If the restrictions are lifted, Maryland industry officials say, there will be plenty of crabs to sell because of favorably warm conditions over the winter. But while grocery stores are open, local demand is likely to be depressed because of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s order closing restaurants last month to all but carryout and delivery service.

Under the governor’s order, commercial watermen and crab pickers are considered essential workers.

The Maryland Department of Health referred questions about health safety guidelines for employers and workers to the state Department of Agriculture.

“Food production businesses — including seafood processors — are considered essential in Maryland and may continue operating while implementing practices that promote social distancing, environmental cleaning, and sanitization. These measures are intended to protect the health of all employees, including any temporary foreign workers,” said Jason Schellhardt, the agriculture department’s communications director.

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Processing plants “are observing all kinds of protocols — everybody is 6 feet apart,” said Seiling, the trade association official. “I’m really proud of them. We have [instructional] posters and videos free of charge for companies that have workers.”

Dorchester County had 31 confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday, according to the Maryland Health Department, and two related deaths.

But worker advocates are concerned that critical care options and infectious disease specialists are less available in rural areas, and that the pickers may face wrenching choices.

“The women are often caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Thurka Sangaramoorthy, a cultural and medical anthropologist and an infectious disease expert at the University of Maryland, College Park. “They need to be able to produce and meet the quotas to be able to come back.

"When they do get sick, they often feel like they need to continue to work to meet those demands,” said Sangaramoorthy, who has studied immigration on Hoopers Island and elsewhere on the shore. “If they do come, then we are looking at living conditions in really close proximity.”

Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that advocates for migrant workers’ rights, has written a letter to federal agencies calling on the U.S. government to provide all migrant workers with more protections.

“They are uniquely vulnerable to acquiring and transmitting COVID-19, and will face many barriers in accessing care and support,” the letter states.

Workers often travel from Mexico on crowded buses, making frequent stops. This year, some report driving their cars to Maryland so they can employ social distancing.

It may help during the pandemic that most of the laborers normally have little social contact with the locals in Dorchester County. Fifteen miles of pine forests, tidal marshes and waving sea grass separate the rest of the county from the string of three islands collectively known as Hoopers.

As many as 500 crab pickers typically arrive each spring, enduring months of cultural and geographical isolation in exchange for paychecks of hundreds of dollars a week to help support their families back home. Demand for the H-2B program is so high that members of Congress often complain there aren’t enough workers for industries such as seafood processing.

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Financial need can often force workers from their homes in Mexico to Maryland's Eastern Shore to fulfill temporary low-wage service jobs in the crab industry.

Selling crabmeat to supermarkets and restaurants is particularly profitable for Eastern Shore plants; sales of whole crabs usually yields far less money. But crab picking is so difficult and tedious that domestic companies say they can’t get enough Americans to take jobs.

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On a typical shift, crabs are wheeled in on a dolly the size of a small dumpster, and placed in piles on long, stainless steel tables for picking. Gloved workers crack the shells and quickly maneuver their knives, piling the meat into small plastic containers marked with numbers to identify how much each laborer extracted.

Before J.M. Clayton workers clock in at 5 a.m., the company is taking their temperatures and providing masks, gloves and aprons, Brooks said. He said the business is monitoring workers to see whether they cough or show other symptoms.

Normally 3 feet apart, workers now stand 6 feet from one another, Brooks said.

When it comes time to weigh the meat plucked from the crabs, workers who usually gather around the weighing station now have staggered times to check in.

Around Hoopers Island, the companies maintain houses where workers live, sometimes in bunk beds with a handful of women in a room.

J.M. Clayton and other companies say they are reducing the number of people in the houses to create more distance between resting workers. Companies have imposed other requirements, too.

“The bosses don’t want us to have visitors in our houses right now, only from work to the house,” said a 29-year-old laborer who drove up from central Mexico a few weeks ago to pick crabs in Dorchester. She asked that her name not be published because she was afraid of losing her job.

She’s among only a few dozen crab pickers in the state so far this season.

She said her temperature was taken at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, before crossing the U.S. border, and that supervisors take her temperature each day in Maryland and ask how she’s feeling.

“A lot of people depend on these jobs to support their families,” the worker said. “And so, let us hope in God that this will be over soon.”

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