Crab crisis in Maryland due to lack of Mexican workers

Maryland’s 20 licensed crab processors typically employ some 500 foreign workers each season, from April to November, through the H-2B visa program, Bill Sieling, director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said. Pickers are paid by the pound of meat they produce, and the most productive ones make up to $500 a week. (The Washington Post article is here.)

“Nobody wants to do manual labor anymore,” Sieling, , said. “It’s just a very, very tight labor market right now, particularly in industries that are seasonal.”

But in February, Sieling said, applications for about 200 of those visas were denied. That leaves women used to making an annual pilgrimage to Maryland stuck at home, with limited options to feed their families.

The H-2B non-agricultural temporary worker program allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary non-agricultural jobs. There is a statutory numerical limit on the total number of foreign nationals who may be issued an H-2B during a fiscal year. The cap is 66,000 per fiscal year, with 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the first half of the fiscal year (October 1 – March 31) and 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the second half of the fiscal year (April 1 – September 30).

Federal labor officials said there was “unprecedented” demand for H-2B visas in January. They received applications for 81,000 foreign workers for the 33,000 visas available for work from April through September.  Because there were so many requests, officials decided to award visas by lottery.

Congress included a provision in the $1.3 trillion spending plan it approved in March that authorizes federal immigration officials to issue more H-2B visas. The crab industry is expecting a lottery for 15,000 more to be announced sometime this month. But a spokesman for the federal immigration agency said he had no information about whether or how many new visas might be permitted.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) requested that the federal government “take immediate action” to raise the visa cap in a recent letter to the secretaries of homeland security and labor.

“Many of these businesses operate in rural parts of our state and have relied on guest workers for decades,” he wrote. “They will be forced to shut their doors or start importing crab meat if this issue is not addressed immediately.”

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