(April 19, 2019) The release of 33,000 H-2B temporary worker visas in April has the Maryland crabbing industry feeling relieved, following a 2018 season that saw some crab processing houses forced to close because of their inability to hire their usual complement of veteran crab pickers.
“Thankfully, all the Maryland seafood companies did get their visas for ... this season,” said Jack Brooks, co-owner of seafood packer J.M. Clayton in Cambridge.
Over the years, packing houses along the Chesapeake side of the Eastern Shore have depended on guest workers from Mexico, because of the dearth of local applicants for that kind or work. But last year, the federal government approved only 15,000 visas as of early July, an action that threatened the existence of bay area packing and processing houses that have worked with bay watermen for generations.
Bob Higgins, owner of crab houses on 31st and 128th streets in Ocean City, said while workers and suppliers will benefit, so too will customers.
“You know it’s a good thing when it’s good for everybody,” he said. “Even the consumer should see a benefit by there being more product available.”
Still, Robert Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, has reservations.
“If [businesses] get the amount of workers they want, yes, it will be positive,” Brown said. But he, like Brooks, know that even the full 66,000 annual allotment allowed by the federal government isn’t enough to cover the need in all areas.
“Certainly, the cap is quite inadequate for the H-2B program,” Brooks said.
Brooks said the H-2B visas distributed over the course of the federal fiscal year area divided among several types of industries, including landscaping, hospitality and seafood processing. “With the economy going and unemployment so low, you know the demand on this program is just exceptionally high,” Brooks said.
The 33,000 visas released in April is the second of two distributions for fiscal year 2019: 33,000 on Oct. 1 and 33,000 on April 1, and obtaining workers through that process is a matter of luck and timing.
“Last year ... half of the Maryland industry was capped out, missed the lottery, so it was just a devastating time,” Brooks said.
Brooks said things were different for this year’s batch of visa requests, because businesses were able to submit applications electronically on a first-come, first-served basis.
The “application date and time [were monitored] by the millisecond,” he said.
Brooks and Brown agreed it’s next year they have to worry about. Brooks said the Department of Labor also has proposed switching to a lottery system.
“So that’ll be a first for the Department of Labor, and I don’t know what [the Department of] Homeland Security is going to do,” Brooks said.
“If they do a lottery too … it’s got the potential of being more horrific than last year or catastrophic than last year.” Brooks added there is still some resistance to the outside hiring process.
“There’s just not many parents [that] are raising their kids to be the best crab picker they can be anymore ... those days are long gone, and [based on] the seasonality of what we do ... you just cannot find local people to wait out the off-season and do this type of work.
“So the math doesn’t work,” Brown said. “If you want a little over 100,000 and you don’t get but 60[,000], somebody’s gonna be left out.” Brooks said several U.S. senators and congressmen have reached across the aisle to address the matter, and said “it’s a bipartisan effort and bipartisan issue.”
Gov. Larry Hogan also expressed his appreciation to federal representatives for helping an industry vital to the Eastern Shore’s economy.
“This is good news for this year, but we still need a long term solution to this problem,” Hogan said in a statement. “I am calling on Congress to do the right thing and take action to ensure our crab houses have the workers they need to be successful.
Hogan added that “a second year of hardship” could have cataclysmic consequences for the industry. “The loss of these jobs and processors will threaten the livelihoods of commercial crabbers and watermen, and jeopardize our $355 million seafood industry,” Hogan said in March.
As for the upcoming season, Brooks said he’s eager to get to work. “Well, we look forward to ... be able to process good crab meat to send to Worcester County, and all around the state of Maryland,” Brooks said.