Temporary visas are subject to abuse: Let’s find a better way to treat guest workers in the seafood industry | COMMENTARY

Seasonal workers have been coming to pick crabs on Maryland's Eastern Shore since the 1980s. (Baltimore Sun staff photo).

For decades now, Maryland’s seafood processors have relied on temporary seasonal workers to help them with one of the more demanding tasks at hand — picking crab meat for eventual sale to retailers and restaurants. The workers, most often women from Mexico, stay only for the season under visas from the H-2B Nonimmigrant Temporary Worker Program, fulfilling a vital role for the seafood industry and preserving jobs for people further down the supply chain. But one of the potential pitfalls of this system reared its ugly head with the conviction last week of Dorchester County resident Phillip J. “Jamie” Harrington III, 50, on charges he took advantage of temporary workers.

Under a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the owner of Capt. Phip’s Seafood Inc. admitted that over a five-year period he would hire guest workers for certain low-wage jobs and then use them for other, usually higher-paying responsibilities. Instead of operating an ice machine (one of the chief sources of income for Phip’s), for example, they might be expected to drive a truck or shuck oysters, for which employees are customarily paid more. Such a distinction is important because the federal government regulates wages under the H-2B program so that workers aren’t taken advantage of. Generally, they have to be paid the prevailing wage for similar jobs in the area. Mr. Harrington is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 23 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.


Seafood industry officials insist that Mr. Harrington’s behavior is not typical of processing operations. But this would not be the first time the H-2B program proved somewhat controversial. One of its major drawbacks is uncertainty. Congress has capped the visa program at 66,000 annually nationwide, so whether the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry receives sufficient labor from year to year is often up in the air. Earlier this year, Gov. Larry Hogan urged federal authorities to set aside more such visas, but such lobbying usually has little impact. It comes down to a lottery. In a good year, processors may qualify for 500 such workers, but in a bad year, many fewer. For some processors, that can be the difference between staying in business or not.

We have long had some sympathy for the industry’s predicament, in part because it has helped keep watermen and others who handle crabs or crabmeat in business. Studies have suggested one temporary worker translates into 2.5 additional jobs for U.S. citizens. The guest workers are expert at what they do and often earn more than the minimum wage of nearly $12 per hour. Those especially adept at removing lump crab meat from the shell have been known to earn $15 to $20 an hour. And given the challenges of the seafood industry, where high prices at the dock can quickly translate to nearly-unaffordable crab meat in the market (although, thankfully, consumers seem willing to pay $45 per pound for lump crab meat of late), highly productive and reliable workers are a necessity.


But here’s an idea: What if these temporary workers were offered a pathway to U.S. citizenship and their services weren’t just for months at a time but potentially for the rest of their working lives? Instead of treating these individuals as outsiders, how about as new arrivals to be welcomed with open arms? The same might be applied for the controversial sister program, the H-1B visa that has long provided educated foreign workers to Silicon Valley and other regions that rely on workers with solid STEM backgrounds. That program is capped as well, and workers may only stay three to six years. But why not longer? Why not embrace such highly desirable workers as U.S. citizens?

Sadly, this is yet another example where xenophobia and politics have conspired against the nation’s best interests, including its economic future. Congress ought to be accepting more immigrants into a country struggling to fill jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether as crab pickers on the Eastern Shore or computer programmers in California. Lately, it’s become politically fashionable to fret about the future of Afghanistan translators who helped U.S. forces during the 20-year conflict in that country. Maryland has declared itself a “welcome state” for Afghan refugees. How about extending some of that consideration to others who are foreign born and have proven their work ethic?

Congress has failed to produce serious immigration reform in the past. But perhaps now, with a president in the White House who doesn’t broadly brush all Mexicans as rapists like his predecessor, the time might be right for some relatively modest tinkering like providing a path to permanent residency for H-2B visa holders. It would help spare such individuals from abusive employers, help companies find qualified workers for all sorts of jobs and help keep Maryland crab cakes on the table — at least until the local season runs out in mid-December. That’s a win-win-win and quite a tasty one at that.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.