Senate panel OKs delay of crab-picker wage raise

A new federal rule that would require crab-processing plants on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere to pay a higher wage to temporary foreign workers would be delayed for a year under legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Advanced by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the measure was attached to a larger spending bill in the Senate and appears to enjoy bipartisan support. The rule, created by the U.S. Department of Labor, will take effect Oct. 1 unless Mikulski's change is approved.

"We're for everybody earning an honest wage," the Maryland Democrat said. But, she added, "80 percent [of the workers] come back every year. They must be satisfied."

The U.S. permits 66,000 foreigners to come to the country each year under what is known as the H-2B visa program. The temporary workers are hired for seasonal jobs such as crab picking, oyster shucking or landscaping and return home once the season is over.

Labor Department officials proposed higher wages for H-2B workers in January after a federal court struck down guidelines for the program crafted by the Bush administration. Under the rule, workers in Maryland who now make $7.25 an hour would receive $9.24, according to industry estimates.

Mikulski has repeatedly expressed frustration that Labor Department officials would not meet with her on the issue because of pending lawsuits over the new rule.

"When they lawyered up, I got revved up," she said Wednesday. "This is the result."

Two Republicans on the committee, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said they supported Mikulski's measure. Both have industries in their states that rely heavily on the H-2B workers.

"Without the H-2B workers, many employers in Maine would have to literally close their doors," Collins said. "That would put out of work the year-round American workers that they have."

Several advocates, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, argue that more U.S. residents would consider taking the seasonal jobs if employers paid a higher wage.

Earlier this week the group requested to join a federal lawsuit in opposition to the businesses fighting the increase. Mary Bauer, legal director for the center, said the wages proposed by the Labor Department better reflect how much companies should be paying for the work.

The new rules "improve guest workers' wages, which are often abysmally low," Bauer said in a statement. The attempt to fight the change, she said, is "nothing more than a refusal to pay workers — whether they are U.S. workers or temporary foreign workers — a fair wage."

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