Work-visa limit snags Shore employers

Sun Staff

For the first time in more than a decade, many Maryland businesses arewarning that there won't be anyone to pick the crabs, shuck the oysters ortrim the hedges.

Thousands of temporary workers essential to keeping many summer industrieshumming will not be allowed into the country this year to take their regularjobs. They are being blocked by a cap on the number of foreign seasonalworkers.

For the first time since the seasonal worker visa program was establishedin 1990, the nationwide limit of 66,000 workers was reached this month - earlyenough to close the door before many seafood processors and landscapers wereallowed to apply.

News of the worker shortage has rippled through the Eastern Shore, home tomany of the state's seafood processing plants, landscaping businesses and oneremaining cannery.

"We're kind of dead in the water without those workers. We can't evenreopen," said Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood on Hooper'sIsland.

With the days when local women picked crabs long gone in most places, theprocessors say they can't find anyone other than the foreign workers for thejobs. They can't afford to raise wages to attract locals because cheaperimports will undercut their product in the marketplace.

They have already tried to tap into Baltimore's unemployed population. Onesummer they ran a worker bus between Baltimore and Cambridge. Most days, theonly one on it was the driver.

Phillips, a former waterman, bought his 65-year-old seafood business in1992 - about the time the seafood industry began using the seasonal workervisa, known as the H-2B. The business had been closed for eight years beforethen, he said, because the previous owner couldn't find anyone to pick thecrabs.

Phillips usually hires 50 H-2B workers for his business, and they startaround March 30. They are almost all women from Mexico, and most come backyear after year.

Bill Seiling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood IndustriesAssociation, said that has been the case with most of the employers. Theworkers remain loyal, he said, because they earn good money - up to $200 a dayfor the fastest crab pickers - and have decent housing provided by theemployers for reasonable rents. Workers are paid by the pound of meat theypick, Seiling said, and all pay Social Security, insurance and income tax.

This year, Seiling said, only four of the 25 plants that count on hiringabout 1,000 foreign seafood workers will be eligible to get them.

When Congress established the program 15 years ago as an answer to ashortage of seasonal workers in non-agricultural industries, lawmakers imposedseveral restrictions. First, they set the 66,000-worker cap nationwide toensure the program wouldn't displace American workers. Second, they saidbusinesses could apply no sooner than 120 days before the workers were needed.

Those restrictions posed no hint of difficulties until last year, when thecap was reached in March. Though processors were able to get their workers,they foresaw problems. Last year was the first the cap had been reached, saidChris Bentley, spokesman for U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which isunder the Department of Homeland Security.

On Jan. 4, Bentley's office announced the 2005 cap had been met and no moreapplications would be accepted.

The agency had already accepted more than 100,000 applications, figuringthat it would reject about a third of those. An application is no guaranteethat a business will get the workers - first, the Department of Labor mustcertify that the business tried to find local workers for the jobs, then theDepartment of Homeland Security must make sure the business is eligible underrequirements. Finally, the State Department handles the visas.

In addition to the seafood and landscaping businesses, Bentley said, themost common H-2B requesters are industries involved in logging, fishprocessing, resort management and food service. But he doesn't know whybusinesses are asking for more H-2B workers.

"We can attest to the fact that the demand is much greater," he said."What's driving the demand, we don't know."

He added that the department's hands are tied regarding the cap. "Thereisn't anything now, as the law was written, that can be done," Bentley said.

Three members of Maryland's congressional delegation are trying to dosomething. Last year, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski introducedlegislation to raise the cap. That bill never came up for a vote, in partbecause it became mired in a larger debate about immigration reform. Severalsenators, among them Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have saidthey're worried that these large influxes of labor keep American wages low.

Other critics, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform,say the industry could attract more domestic workers simply by offering betterpay.

"What we're really doing with these foreign workers is exploiting them,"said Jack Martin, a spokesman for the federation. "Really, what is happeningis that these workers are practically indentured."

Those with constituents relying on the H-2B program are trying to separatethe immediate worker need from the larger immigration debate. This year,Mikulski is working with a bipartisan panel of senators from other states thatrely on the H-2B program. Staffers for Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes saythey're also involved in the issue.

Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest joined Mikulski to support a proposalexempting some foreign workers from the cap. The bill, which hasn't beenfiled, would let workers who have held jobs with American companies in thepast two or three years return to these jobs.

That's not a problem for H-2B loyalists like Ned Brooks, who runs RelmsLandscaping in Annapolis. He has used the same 15 or so workers all four ofhis years with the program.

"The door's been summarily slammed in our face," he said. "With this cap,companies on the West Coast have a decided advantage over us because theystart the process earlier."

Jay Friel, who runs his family's 100-year-old cannery in Queen Anne'sCounty, the last such operation on the Eastern Shore, says the visa programhas helped stabilize his local work force of 75 full-time employees. Thanks tothe program, many local workers can take on higher-paying supervisorypositions while temporary workers handle lower-skilled jobs.

"This program works; it's a no-brainer," Friel said. "It's not really animmigration issue; it's a jobs issue, and it saves American jobs."

The Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association has lobbied Congresssince March to let more workers. Seiling said they're now considering othermore attention-grabbing measures - like dumping crab shells on the U.S.Capitol steps.

"We have beat all the bushes we're supposed to beat, and nothing hashappened," he said.

Several times this month, Harry Phillips has fielded calls from his workersin Mexico asking when they can return to work. Having to deliver the bad newsis all the more difficult for Phillips because his application arrived at theDepartment of Homeland Security by overnight mail on Jan. 4 - hours after thecap was reached.

Even those who have their workers worry about what's to come. Jack Brooks,whose family runs J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, filed his visa request intime, but he wonders about 2006. In addition to facing competition for H-2Bworkers, seafood brokers fear losing out to cheaper imports from Asia, SouthAmerica and Central America.

"Without these workers, we have a way of life around the bay that is goingto disappear," Brooks said. "The way things stand now, we could see 70 percentor 80 percent of Maryland crab meat vanish this year. It would changeeverything - and change it for good."

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