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Maryland

Eastern Shore crab processors welcome new foreign worker visas but say they need ‘long-term fix to survive’

Celia Serna and other guest workers pick crabs at the J.M. Clayton processing plant in Cambridge in 2011.

Eastern Shore crab processors welcomed the federal government’s planned release of new visas to hire foreign guest workers, but they called it a one-year remedy that fails to address recurring labor shortages.

“We need a long-term fix to survive,” said Jack Brooks, one of the owners of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge in Dorchester County and president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said last week that it plans to release 64,716 additional H-2B visas, allowing Maryland crab processing companies and other businesses across the country — such as landscapers and resorts — more access to the temporary workers from Mexico and other countries that they say they desperately need.

The additional 64,716 would be available in the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1, and would be on top of the 66,000 visas that DHS can release annually.

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“We’ll take that while we wait for a permanent fix,” said Bryan Hall, co-owner of G.W. Hall and Sons in Fishing Creek in Dorchester County.

Melva Guadalupe Vázquez, of Ciudad del Maíz, rapidly picks crabmeat alongside her co-workers during an evening shift at Lindy's Seafood in Hoopers Island in 2019.

It’s uncertain how many of the visas Maryland companies would get — there is often overwhelming demand — or when the workers would be available, according to Brooks and other company officials.

The workers, usually women, are used to help pick the crabmeat 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.

“It’s good news in the fact that they’re doing it,” sales manager Aubrey Vincent of Lindy’s Seafood in Woolford in Dorchester County said of the government’s announcement. “But we don’t have any idea how they’re going to do it. Will they release half now and half in the spring? Spring is the largest demand for the program.”

DHS said in a news release last week that the visas would be available “at the outset of the fiscal year” and that it would be issuing a regulation about its plans. “The Department of Homeland Security is moving with unprecedented speed to meet the needs of American businesses,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in the release.

It was uncertain precisely when the regulations would be issued, and the department did not immediately respond to information requests from The Baltimore Sun.

In the early 2000s, former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, intervened when Northern ski resorts and Florida landscapers were scooping up the visas before Maryland crab houses had a chance to apply. She championed a change that divided the annual 66,000-visa allowance into two semiannual allotments.

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But Eastern Shore processors have struggled to keep operating in recent years because the demand is so great that many have not been receiving their requested allotments. Before being granted visas, the guest worker program requires companies to establish that they could not find enough assistance in the United States.

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In a typical year, as many as 10 Maryland crab plants enter a U.S. Department of Labor lottery in January that is used to parcel out the visas. The Eastern Shore plants say they collectively need 400 to 500 foreign workers, but often receive far fewer. The workers typically live in company-provided houses and take shifts cracking shells with tiny knives and piling the meat into plastic containers.

Brooks, whose company requests 85 to 90 workers, said it’s difficult to plan for the peak spring and summer season when his workforce must depend “on another lottery ticket.”

Maryland Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin said in a news release last week that they are working with congressional colleagues “to develop a lasting solution that provides clearer, more certain rules of the road for our seafood businesses.”

That could mean, Brooks said, that seafood workers would receive an exemption from visa caps, allowing the industry more year-to-year stability.

Crab companies have also pursued a more limited fix in which returning workers aren’t counted against the annual limits, meaning they would be grandfathered in.

“The majority of processors have had the same staff for more than 20 years,” Vincent said. “We’d like to get the same people back.”


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