WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from Maryland and the Obama administration are scrambling to fight a federal court order that has shut down the guest worker program that connects foreigners with crab-picking jobs on the Eastern Shore and other low-paying, seasonal work around the country.
The administration wants to temporarily block a ruling out of Florida this month that found Congress never granted the U.S. Department of Labor the authority to certify employers for the program, which brings tens of thousands of seasonal workers into the country each year.
"That's devastating to my district," Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County lawmaker who represents the Eastern Shore, said of the program's halting. "What was the thinking behind the decision to just shut down the applications?"
Underscoring the seafood industry's sway, Harris, a conservative Republican, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a liberal Democrat, are both pressing the administration to restart the visa program.
"Watermen and seafood processors on the Eastern Shore can't wait around for bureaucratic dither and delay to hire the crab pickers they need to keep our seafood businesses operating," Mikulski said.
The United States allows foreigners to come to the country each year on H-2B visas to work in seasonal jobs such as crab picking, oyster shucking and landscaping. They must return home once the season is over.
Employers value those who return year after year; some have been going to the Eastern Shore for decades.
The Labor Department certified more than 3,000 workers in Maryland last year, making the state among the largest beneficiaries in the country.
But the program, which is administered mainly by the Department of Homeland Security, has been the target of frequent litigation. Opponents say the businesses could hire American workers to do the jobs, but simply want to pay foreign workers less money.
A Florida man who works as a waiter filed a federal suit in December alleging he would apply for jobs held by the foreign workers if they had been advertised.
A District Court ruled March 4 that the Labor Department lacks the authority to certify whether U.S. workers are available to perform the jobs, and whether the presence of foreign workers would adversely affect wages of local workers in similar positions — two of the requirements of the program.
In response, the Labor Department stopped processing H-2B applications.
The administration filed a request late Monday to halt the court's ruling. If granted, that would allow the Labor Department to resume processing applications for foreign workers pending an appeal.
The government has also vowed to draft new rules on the program by late April.
Harris pressed Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez on Tuesday about why the Labor Department allowed the program to shut down rather than reverting to a previous arrangement in which officials played an informal role, advising Homeland Security about employers. Perez said the administration is treading carefully to avoid more litigation.
"I am acutely aware, having been the labor secretary in Maryland, of the importance of the H-2B program," Perez said.