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Hogan urges more visas as seafood industry seeks permanent changes

Eva Barrera Martinez, a guest migrant worker from Hidalgo, Mexico, picks crabs at a crab house in Fishing Creek, Maryland in 2020. The state’s seafood industry is engaged in what has been an annual appeal for more visas to bring in migrant workers. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Eva Barrera Martinez, a guest migrant worker from Hidalgo, Mexico, picks crabs at a crab house in Fishing Creek, Maryland, in 2020. The state’s seafood industry is engaged in what has been an annual appeal for more visas to bring in migrant workers. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

With blue crab season just around the corner, Gov. Larry Hogan is again asking the federal government to increase the number of visas available for seasonal migrant workers, who make up a massive portion of the seafood industry’s crab pickers.

In a letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on March 23, Hogan requested the national cap on these visas, called H-2B visas, to increase from 66,000 visas to “the maximum allowable under federal law.”

Around 450 H-2B visa employees work as crab pickers in Maryland in a typical year, Hogan said in his letter.

He also called for an end to a lottery system for visas, implemented in 2017, that distributes temporary visas randomly rather than on a first-come first-served basis.

“Without these temporary workers, and without an end of the arbitrary lottery system, local Maryland seafood processors will be unable to open for business or be forced to significantly reduce their operations,” Hogan wrote. “Continued hardship could permanently damage America’s seafood industry, causing these iconic family and small businesses to close here in Maryland, especially those on the Eastern Shore.”

He also invited Mayorkas and Walsh to visited a Maryland crab processor in order to “learn about the situation directly.”

In a 2020 survey of the eight largest of Maryland’s 23 crab picking houses conducted by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, all eight agreed that hiring H-2B workers had helped their businesses grow. The majority agreed that without temporary migrant workers, their businesses would shut down for the season.

Harry Phillips, the owner of Russell Hall Seafood on Hoopers Island in Dorchester County, has increased the number of H-2B visa workers from 12 when he first bought the company in 1992 to 60 today. While he was fortunate enough to get all 60 workers this year, in 2018 he got none at all, a major blow not just to his own business, which couldn’t operate that season, but also to the crabbers he purchases from.

“A lot of the watermen were not able to go to work because we couldn’t pick the crabs. If we can’t pick the crabs, they can’t catch them, I can’t buy them,” Phillips said. “It’s like the domino effect when we don’t get our workers.”

Without seasonal workers, watermen would lost $12.5 million in wages each year, crab processing plants would lose upwards of $37 million in sales, at least 950 jobs would be lost and the state’s economy could lose over $100 million, the 2020 survey reported.

In past years, the federal government has decided to release additional H-2B visas. But to Aubrey Vincent, who manages the H-2B program at her family’s business, Lindy’s Seafood, it’s frustrating to see the government release more visas each year without making any sort of permanent change to the system.

“I think my biggest frustration with this whole program is year after year after year we realize we have a problem. Every year they release more visas later on … but we haven’t done the heavy lifting to actually solve the problem,” she said.

Hogan has suggested long-term solutions to the problems the 66,000-visa cap presents, such as reinstating the Returning Worker Exemption, which allowed foreign workers who had worked in the U.S. on an H-2B visa in the past three years to be exempt from the cap. He has also suggested exempting seafood workers, or simply eliminating the cap altogether.

Phillips agrees that seafood industry employees should not be part of the 66,000-visa cap.

“The way I see it, the seafood industry needs to be exempt from the cap. There’s people you can find to cut grass or plant flowers, any type of landscaping, but you cannot get people in America to shuck oysters in the wintertime or pick crabs in the summertime. They’re just not here,” he said.

Crab picking also isn’t an attractive occupation to Americans, Phillips said, because it’s work that is only available for eight months of the year. For years, Russell Hall Seafood has tried to recruit domestic workers at job fairs across the state, but the company has had almost no success.

Vincent also noted that there is a general labor shortage on the Eastern Shore.

“I think unless you’re really familiar with the area, I think it’s hard to picture that we don’t even have (enough) people,” she said.

She agrees with those who say that the cap, which has been the same for decades, needs to be raised or lifted. She has also heard proposals to qualify seafood workers for H-2A visas, a type of visa, for which there is no cap, that is reserved for temporary agriculture workers.

“I’m hoping Congress is going to step up and do something,” she said.


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