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Maryland’s crab industry again faces massive shortage of foreign workers unless Trump raises visa limits

HOOPERS ISLAND — Maryland’s seafood industry is facing a massive shortage of laborers to pick and process crab meat for the second time in three years, and is pleading with the Trump administration to increase a limit on foreign guest workers.

Six of nine crab-picking operations at the core of the state’s seafood industry do not expect to receive the visas they need to hire workers, usually about 500 women from Mexico, to pick crab meat for sale in grocery stores and restaurants. Maryland agriculture officials estimate that could cost the state more than 1,000 jobs and as much as $150 million in economic activity.

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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.

A dearth of picked crab meat can lead to increased supply of crabs being sold by the bushel, driving up the price of local meat and reducing prices for steamed crabs.

The visa shortage stems from a surge in demand for temporary workers from landscaping companies and golf course managers, as well as seafood industries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The U.S. Department of Labor received applications for nearly 100,000 visas in a lottery in January, but only 33,000 are available for the spring and summer seasons. H-2B visa recipients also have to be cleared through the Department of Homeland Security.

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The Wall Street Journal reported last week that President Donald Trump’s administration was expected to soon release 45,000 more visas, including 20,000 that would be available immediately and 25,000 in June. Last year, Trump allowed an extra 30,000 visas.

Maryland politicians and industry leaders are pleading for Trump to double the number of seasonal workers allowed under what is known as the H-2B program this year, and to find a permanent solution to relieve the overwhelming demand for the visas.

Dozens of watermen, seafood processors and state and local officials gathered at seafood company A.E. Phillips & Son on Monday, stressing that, without more stability in their work force, the industry and communities that surround it are at risk. Crab season begins in Maryland waterways April 1, and continues through the fall.

“This is more than a jobs issue,” said Aubrey Vincent, sales manager at Lindy’s Seafood. “It’s an American community issue.”

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Generations ago, Eastern Shore women and girls largely staffed what are known as “picking houses,” but the industry began relying on foreign worker visas in the 1990s.

But a visa shortage first hit the state’s seafood industry hard in 2018, and some seafood companies went through that crab season with significantly smaller-than-normal work forces. Demand for the types of non-agricultural temporary work allowed under the H-2B program had increased dramatically, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to begin awarding the visas through a lottery.

This year, for the first time, the labor department held a lottery for its portion of the visa process, too, meaning recipients of H-2B visas have to get lucky twice to get the workers they need.

That has only compounded frustrations for the seafood companies, most of which go back several generations on Hoopers Island in southern Dorchester County.

“How in the hell you going to run your business on a lottery?” said Steve Phillips, CEO of A.E. Phillips. “It doesn’t make any sense for our government to act this way.”

Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Maryland Democrats, have been urging the Trump administration to allow more visas, but representatives for the lawmakers said Monday they are still waiting for a response. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has also urged Washington officials to find a solution.

“I was hoping I would have some magical announcement for you all this morning,” said Kimberly Kratovil, Cardin’s Eastern Shore field representative. “Unfortunately, I don’t.”

Representatives for the federal departments of labor and homeland security could not be immediately reached for comment.

In a survey sponsored by the state agriculture department and the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association, most of the crab processing companies said they could be forced to shut down their operations for the season if they don’t get their visas.

Russell Hall Seafood, Old Salty’s Seafood and J.M. Clayton Seafood all expect to receive the visas they requested through the federal labor department’s lottery; others are less likely to unless the government allows for more visas.

The processors surveyed said they paid 416 watermen nearly $19 million for 14 million pounds of crabs last year. And the companies combined for about $37 million in sales to retailers and restaurants. They reported employing 123 U.S. workers in addition to the foreign work force.

The dockside value of all crabs caught in Maryland totaled about $47 million in 2017, according to state data. That includes the larger crustaceans sold at top prices at crab houses, whereas smaller crabs are more likely to end up in picking houses.

Without enough crab pickers in 2020, companies said they expect those figures to decline. That could have trickle-down effects on retailers and restaurants.

Pete White, of Captain White’s Seafood in Washington, said customers frequently ask where the crab meat they’re buying comes from, if they don’t specifically ask for Maryland crab.

“Most of the time, I get to say, ‘Hoopers Island,’” White said. But if Captain White’s market only has meat imported from Asia or South America to offer, he said he expects his sales will go down.

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