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Report says pandemic exposed conditions and risk for migrant crab pickers on the Eastern Shore

Cooked crabs set ready for picking are shown in a 2017 photo in Virginia.
Cooked crabs set ready for picking are shown in a 2017 photo in Virginia. (Joe Fudge / Daily Press)

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed crowded conditions and health risks faced by Mexican crab pickers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, according to a new report.

The mostly female workforce also faces “systemic gender discrimination” in the form of lower pay and less desirable assignments than men, said the report released Thursday by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant rights group, and two university-based organizations.

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The groups said the pandemic did not create labor problems in the H-2B Maryland seafood industry but "it has heightened them.”

“Crab pickers have been at work throughout the pandemic where they face precarious conditions such as overcrowded housing, cramped conditions and a lack of accessible medical care,” they said in a statement accompanying the report.

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The report came 10 years after a similar study by the migrant rights organization and one of the university groups of conditions faced by guest workers, who enter the country with H-2B visas requested by crab processing plants.

Maryland’s crab processing industry, centered in Dorchester County, took issue with the earlier report’s account of working conditions. “I hope [this one] is more accurate than the first one they did,” Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said Thursday. “I have not seen it.”

The latest study was conducted by CDM, which has offices in Baltimore and Mexico; the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic; and Georgetown University Law Center’s Federal Legislation Clinic.

In most summers, as many as 500 of the workers come to Dorchester, many clustered on a remote string of three islands collectively known as Hoopers. Only 180 came this summer because of a combination of caps on the visas they use and coronavirus-related restrictions.

"Breaking the Shell" report

The women work and live together in close proximity. In the plants, workers typically position themselves around long, stainless steel tables to pick the crabs.

About 50 of the workers tested positive for COVID-19 in July, The Baltimore Sun reported. There were outbreaks — defined as five or more cases in a two-week period — at two plants, said the county health department, which declined to identify the facilities. No one died and one person was treated in a hospital, the department said.

The report said researchers interviewed 19 women in 2019 — more interviews were done later — and were told of “crowded housing conditions, widespread asthma and limited access to health care, putting crab pickers at increasing risk of lethal exposure to COVID-19.”

“Whether you are a crab picker, a crab employer, or just being a Marylander, we need to rally around, because these essential workers, who are so critical to the economy, should not be so vulnerable to becoming ill," Amy Liebman, a Salisbury-based regional director for the Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit group, said in an interview. She was a panelist during a news conference to release the report.

Brooks, the industry group president, said: “We do social distancing, people are working at double-arms length from each other and all are all wearing masks.” He said a local medical clinic paid regular visits to Hoopers Island.

Brooks denied the report’s claim of gender bias, saying: “They’re all paid the same. There is incentive so the ones that pick more, make more. The women are actually better at it than the men.”

The report said: “H-2B companies overwhelmingly employ men in supervisory positions and pay them higher hourly wages. This discrimination reduces women’s wages, limits their decision-making power, and increases the risk of sexual harassment.”

It said that absent better enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, “crab-picking women lack pathways to justice and equality.”

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Baltimore Sun reporter Stephanie García contributed to this article.

García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities.

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