Shore faces shortage of labor

The Baltimore Sun

For more than a century, the S.E.W. Friel company has been canning corn in Queen Anne's County. And for the past several years, the Eastern Shore's only remaining cannery has hired Mexicans to work in the plant during the peak months of July and August.

But this year, it looks like Friel won't get the 70 or so seasonal workers it needs. The national cap for migrants to temporarily work in this country under a special visa program was filled before Friel was permitted to apply under the program's rules. And an attempt by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to pass legislation to help such businesses was unsuccessful.

"We've been around for over 100 years, and this is the one time in the history of the company that we can honestly say we've reached out and asked for help from Congress," said Jay Friel III. "These seasonal jobs are needed to keep our full-time staff employed."

Though most of the Shore's crab-picking houses have been notified they will get the workers they sought, some companies are in the same boat as Friel. The problem is national, but its impact is particularly strong on the Eastern Shore, where the seasonal nature of many businesses complicates hiring.

Phillips Seafood Restaurants in Ocean City won't get the 120 workers it says it needs to help cook and clean. Other places, including Chesapeake Treasures in Salisbury, which harvests and sells crabmeat, are still in limbo. They have not received word from the federal government about whether their foreign workers will be allowed to return for the season.

"If this program goes away, it will devastate the crab industry in the Chesapeake Bay," said Chesapeake Treasures owner Johnny Shockley. "The work force to process the meat is not there, and it never will be there in this country again."

The visa program, called H2B, has been a lifeline for many seasonal businesses. It lets thousands of workers into the United States on temporary visas to take seasonal jobs that are hard to fill, such as crab-picking and landscaping. The migrants work for the season, and then return home.

Program limits

The problem for Maryland businesses is that the program has a limit of 66,000 workers nationally - a limit often reached before many of the state's companies are allowed to apply. This year, the quota was filled by Jan. 2. That shut out Friel; he needs his workers in July, and employers can't apply until 120 days before the work would start.

The crab processors, led by J.M. Clayton Co. owner Jack Brooks, have been lobbying Capitol Hill for a solution - an expansion of the cap or an exception allowing migrants who have worked before to return.

The processors found an ally in Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, who has twice been able to push through stopgap legislation allowing former workers to return for another year. Those exceptions, Brooks said, saved the crab-picking industry in 2005 and 2006.

Mikulski's 2005 bill also helped Maryland businesses by earmarking half of the 66,000 visas to businesses needing workers in the winter and the rest to those needing workers in the summer. That likely helped the Shore's warm-weather businesses. Brooks said most of the crab processors got approvals this year before the cap was filled.

Mikulski again pushed for a permanent solution to the H2B problem before Congress recessed last month. When that failed, she sought another temporary reprieve. The Senate passed language that would have allowed a one-year extension, but the measure failed when the Hispanic Caucus, which includes 24 House Democrats, refused to accept any legislation short of overall immigration reform.

Immigration debate

"The discussion over extending H2B visas is inherently linked to our nation's greater immigration debate, and it must be resolved within that context," Rep. Joe Baca of California, the caucus chairman, said in a statement.

The H2B program has other critics. Some Republicans worry about reliance on foreign workers. Union leaders say cheap foreign labor keeps domestic wages low. And immigration advocates worry that foreign workers can be exploited because they could be forced to leave if they complain about conditions.

Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the senator's failure to pass relief for seasonal businesses was one of her biggest disappointments this year, and that she will keep trying when Congress returns.

In a statement, Mikulski said, "This is not a new issue, not a new policy, not a new loophole and not a new cap. We're not breaking new ground here. We are simply trying to extend the guest worker provision that has expired. Small and seasonal businesses and their workers are counting on us."

Brooks, who expects to get the 75 foreign workers he needs, nonetheless called the outcome "devastating" - he knows many businesses were not as lucky as his, and they all will likely have to endure the same uncertainty next year. That will mean another year when businesses don't know if they should order new equipment or hire their local work force because they don't know if they'll be able to open.

'We need a fix on this'

"How can you buy trucks and prepare to run a business if you don't have labor?" said Brian Hall, owner of G.W. Hall and Sons on Hoopers Island. "We need a fix on this."

Phillips' restaurants in Ocean City are among the businesses not getting the workers they sought for the coming season. Though they are in a better situation than Friel - thousands of young people arrive at the resort each summer seeking work, whereas a rural cannery is not exactly a prime destination - that is hardly comforting.

Paul Wall, Phillips' vice president, said his busy season begins around April and lasts until well after Labor Day - longer than the typical student's summer break. And with lots of summer work options available, he knows cleaning restaurants is not the most attractive job.

Still, Wall said he is not giving up. "We don't want to be so pessimistic that we're going to fall on our knees and cry," he said. "We're going to be more aggressive and get out there and try to get the American worker before our competition does. We have to."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Chris Guy contributed to this article.

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