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Limits on seasonal work visas hit Maryland’s crab industry

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Summertime is peak season for Maryland’s prized blue crabs, known for their saltiness and jumbo lumps of meat. But this year, the industry’s mostly migrant workforce was cut by 35 percent. As the Department of Homeland Security processes a record number of H-2B seasonal worker visas and enforces a limited pool, summertime industries are struggling. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports. This is part of an ongoing series of reports called “Chasing the Dream,” which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

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  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    What is said to differentiate Maryland crab is the saltiness of the Chesapeake Bay and the perfectly sized jumbo lump of meat that comes from the back fin.

    The extraction process is largely the same as it has been for the past 100 years, with the crab picked by hand, traditionally by women, but the faces of those doing picking, have changed.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS, RUSSELL HALL SEAFOOD:

    The American crab picker has gone by the wayside. The older ladies have died off and the younger ladies now want a full-time job. We only offer eight months out of the year. We’re seasonal. So they want something they can count on year-round with benefits, and we don’t offer that.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Like others in the area, Harry Phillips has gotten around the shortage of american workers with a migrant workforce, hired season after season, and brought legally to the U.S. on H-2B visas.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    You have to have your petition in the 1st of January so we could have our workers here the first day of April. And it’s always been first-come, first-serve. So it’s worked out perfect over these last 25 years.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The way it works is that American companies themselves apply for the visas. Once approved, companies like his can invite foreign workers to come.

    But this year the room is empty where 50 workers — most of them women from Mexico — usually pick crab. Record demand for the visas across the country, coupled with changes to the program, squeezed Phillips out.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    I need this, my family needs this, my children, and my grandchildren coming up, they are counting on this business going into the future.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    This January, U.S. companies applied for more than 80,000 H-2B visas for the second half of the fiscal year but only 33,000 were available under a longstanding congressional cap.

    In response to this year’s demand, the government changed the way it awards H-2B’s, moving from a first-come-first serve system to a lottery.

    Harry Phillips’ company was not selected.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    My accountant comes every so often, she said I’ve got some good news and bad news. The bad news was I hadn’t made any money and the good news was I wasn’t going to have to pay any quarterly taxes. That tells you what we’re doing.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    While it is quiet at Phillips’ plant, one of his competitors, nearby Lindy’s Seafood, is surviving for now with a fraction of its usual workforce. They’re working off visas issued last fall.

    Lindy’s, too, was not selected in the lottery.

  • AUBREY VINCENT:

    This is everything. My family grew up here. In the summertime, this is what we do. We didn’t take vacations, we came here and picked crabs.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Aubrey Vincent has worked for the family business since she was 12 years old. She normally hires about 130 seasonal crab pickers. The majority on H-2B visas.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Why is it so difficult to hire Americans to do these jobs?

  • AUBREY VINCENT, LINDY’S SEAFOOD:

    I have amazing American truck drivers, I have some American pickers, I have tons of people in my office, the lady that runs this plant, she’s a full time American employee. The problem that I’m running into is, is I don’t have enough. So, I use the H-2B program to supplement that American workforce. So, I think a lot of it had to do with our area, we just don’t have the people. There’s not a lot of people moving into the area, because people are looking for full time opportunities.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Vincent estimates the business is losing thousands of dollars a day. The pasteurizer and cooler she purchased last winter sit empty and unused.

    Thinking of the losses you’re taking now, if you were to increase your wages, would you be able to shrink those losses?

  • AUBREY VINCENT:

    I pay more than any picking house in the area, significantly more. I pay $4.50 a pound, and I pay $9.51 training wage. So, a lot of my employees are making anywhere from like $12 to $16 an hour. We’re paying more than any of the open positions in town. And still, I can’t seem to get people interested.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    By the end of December, all 19 of Vincent’s H-2B workers have to return to home, and there’s no guarantee she will be able to hire them back next year.

  • AUBREY VINCENT:

    I mean, our situation is bad, but there are people in the country that have it much worse than us, and they need to make sure their representatives understand that.

  • AUBREY VINCENT:

    Information on H-2B?

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    But Vincent is not sitting idle. This summer, she moved from phone calls to direct interaction on the streets of Washington.

  • AUBREY VINCENT:

    Congress could fix it, the administration could fix it, there’s a lot of different people that, if they were willing to step up, and really look at the program objectively, they could fix it.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The many different players might be part of the complication. When the H-2B program hit its cap, only Congress could authorize more to be released.

    After months of delays in March, Congress did authorize more than 63,000 additional visas.

    But that’s not the end of the story, the visas must be approved by two additional parties, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor. That’s a slow process, on top of the Congressional delay.

    So far, only 15,000 additional visas have been issued, once again through a lottery. Only one Maryland crab processing company was selected.

  • REP. ANDY HARRIS, (R) MARYLAND:

    An issue very important to my district — I have the beautiful Eastern Shore of Maryland –is the H-2B visa issue.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Maryland’s eastern shore is represented by Republican Congressman Andy Harris, who sits on the subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security.

  • REP. ANDY HARRIS:

    They have to bring those crabs to be processed somewhere because believe me, when you eat a crab cake, you’re not eating the whole crab.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    These visas are sitting with the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Labor, ready to go, but the processing plants are sitting empty.

  • REP. ANDY HARRIS:

    It’s a fairly lengthy process. It normally takes a couple of months, we’re hoping that it can get shortened to, you know, only several weeks, but there is a process.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    15,000 is woefully inadequate when you’ve had so many applications. They knew full well that this was coming.

  • REP. ANDY HARRIS:

    Yeah, look, this is Congress’ problem. Congress has set the cap, Congress delayed doing their omnibus bill, we included the fix in a late appropriations measure, and everything cascaded. It was a domino effect.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Congressman Harris was one of 82 representatives to sign a letter calling on the Department of Homeland Security to release the additional visas.

  • REP. ANDY HARRIS:

    This is actually the ideal foreign worker to come in, because they actually are supporting our medicare system, supporting our social security system, even though they will never participate in it.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    But Harris says, convincing groups on both sides of the political spectrum isn’t easy.

    Workers’ rights and civil rights groups argue the system needs reform and increased oversight to protect migrants from exploitation and union groups, like the AFL-CIO, have argued that allowing migrants to work seasonally depresses wages for American workers.

    At the same time, some conservative lawmakers have taken a hardline against expansion of the program.

  • SEN. TOM COTTON, (R) ARKANSAS, MAY 2017:

    A lot of the arguments for this kind of program boil down to this: no American worker will do that job. That is a lie. It is a lie. There is no job that Americans will not do.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Congressman Harris says the H-2B program is not just about the jobs that the migrant workers are doing.

  • REP. ANDY HARRIS:

    For every job that they’re filling, there are at least three or four American jobs that depend on them. There’s the person who supplies the containers that they’re going to put the crab meat in. There’s the trucker who trucks the containers in, and the filled containers out. There’s the restaurant who serves the crab, there are the distributors, there are the waitresses in the restaurants. There are many downstream jobs.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Those downstream are already feeling the effects. At Old Salty’s, a popular eastern shore restaurant, owner Jay Newcomb says he struggles to find enough fresh crab for his menu.

  • JAY NEWCOMB, OLD SALTY’S RESTAURANT:

    Last year I put away like 4,000 pounds for the winter, and that was all but used up. So now we’re in the fresh market, and it’s been hard to get also, plus the price is up a lot.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    How much has the price changed?

  • JAY NEWCOMB:

    $3-4 a pound.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Just this year?

  • JAY NEWCOMB:

    Yes, just this year.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    What will it mean for this community if next summer is like this summer and they haven’t figured it out?

  • JAY NEWCOMB:

    Next year we feel it’s going to be worse. There’s a lot more demand this year, so a lot more next year, and we just don’t think they’re going to be as lucky with the lottery.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Who do you think is responsible for what’s happened?

  • JAY NEWCOMB:

    It’s Washington.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Just this month, the Department of Homeland Security responded to Congressman Harris’ letter, informing him that it would not be releasing any additional visas.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Where are you next year if you don’t get your visas?

  • AUBREY VINCENT:

    So my family started this business. My daughter is 2. What I pray, is that I can keep it alive enough that it does get fixed, and that I can pass this opportunity down to her. I love this. I love this industry, I love this area, that is what I hope happens. Worst case scenario, is i’m not going to be able to pull that off. And that’s the scariest part.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Lacking solutions, Harry Phillips is making contingency plans.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    I can’t do it two years in a row, no. If we don’t get our workers another year, we’ll shut the doors. Either that, or we’ve even considered, there’s crabs in Mexico. We’re checking to see what’s going on, and we’re going to fly down there this winter.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    To see about maybe setting up shop there.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    Setting up shop in Mexico.The ladies are there. They’re all willing to work. The crabs are there. This is all I know. I don’t have much education, and I do know what I’m doing here. So what else can we do? We can’t sit here idle.

Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

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