H-2B or not to be

Late last week, Chesapeake Bay crab processors got the seasonal help they desperately needed — in the nick of time. The key fall season starts soon and without enough able hands on deck to pick crabmeat, the struggling blue crab industry would’ve suffered yet another blow. Thankfully, processors got the help they needed in the form of 25,000 unused migrant-worker visas made available by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that H-2B visas were cleared for crab processors at the eleventh hour. The same scenario seems to play out every year now, with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) coming to the aid of her constituents just when the season and all hope seem lost.

Douglas Lipton, an economist at the University of Maryland, told the Baltimore Sun recently that if the visas had not been available, the region’s seafood industry could have faced major contraction, with up to half of Maryland’s crab processing firms going out of business. The workers’ importance goes beyond crab houses: Lipton estimates that every seasonal crabmeat worker supports 2.5 jobs in the Mid-Atlantic.

This system of uncertainty and last-minute rescues is taking a toll on crab processors and the watermen themselves. Jack Brooks, president of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge, Md., told me on Tuesday that he’s thrilled to have a willing workforce — his company requires about 90 to 100 visas — to gear up for the busiest time of year from September through November. It’s a “godsend,” he said. But Brooks admitted that it’s extremely challenging to run a business, to satisfy customer demand, to take out loans, to market your product, when you don’t know if you’ll have enough workers to operate year after year.

“We’re committed to staying legal,” said Brooks, who’s also president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. “But Capitol Hill has put us in a box.”

Immigration is one of a handful of issues (along with healthcare, as we’re witnessing every day now) that polarizes the nation. But Americans have a distaste for a job like picking crabmeat or shucking oysters, either because it’s seasonal, it’s part time, it pays minimum wage or is considered “dirty” work and beneath them. Those who want to preserve such jobs for American citizens just don’t understand the reality of the situation.

Migrant workers have been saving small businesses like J.M. Clayton. But this is no way to run a business long-term: Businesses cannot apply for visas more than 120 days before they need them, and nearly all of the available visas (66,000 annually) are claimed by the time the crab season begins. It’s been like “running on a treadmill” since 2004, said Brooks, who then asked the question of the day: “How much sense does it make to put any American businesses at risk right now?”

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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