CAMBRIDGE — State representatives support a bipartisan campaign urging the Department of Homeland Security to grant more H-2B visas, which could help the Maryland crab industry.
U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both D-Md., along with U.S. Rep Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, signed on letters Thursday, March 7, urging DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to authorize more visas to meet the needs of American small businesses.
The additional visas would be a big boost for the Maryland crab industry, which lost about 40 percent of its H-2B workers in 2018 after many crab processors missed out on gaining the essential visas.
Dorchester County represents more than 60 percent of the crab meat processors in the state. Traditionally, Dorchester processors apply for federal H-2B visas for about 500 guest, seasonal workers, who in the past have come from Mexico.
But with a surge in 2018 H-2B applications associated with the rebuild of Texas after the 2017 hurricane season, the program, which is capped at 66,000 visas (33,000 for six months), used a lottery to give out visas.
Harris’ letter, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.; and U.S. Sen. Thorn Tillis, R-N.C., notes an appropriation package approved in February authorizes Nielsen, in consultation with the secretary of labor, to release up to about 69,320 additional H-2B visas for the remainder of the fiscal year 2019. The letter, signed by 138 members of Congress, including Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md.-2nd, urges Nielsen to bring relief and release the additional visas.
“It’s essential that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) release additional H-2B visas sufficient to meet the demand of seasonal employers, particularly in Maryland’s First District,” Harris said. “The effects of a continually oversubscribed H-2B visa system have been, and will continue to be, serious, and will negatively affect seasonal business, economic growth and general business operations — not just in Maryland’s First District, but nation-wide.
“Given the booming economy, record low unemployment rate and soaring demand for labor, it is crucial that our seasonal employers are afforded access to temporary guest workers,” he said. “As such, I strongly urge Secretary Nielsen to exercise her discretion and release enough H-2B visas to meet the needs of our American employers.”
Of the eight Dorchester crab meat processors, four did not receive any visas — Lindy’s Seafood, A.E. Phillips, Russell Hall Seafood and Old Salty’s. The other four — Rippon’s Brothers Seafood, WT Ruark and Co., G.W. Hall and Sons, and J.M. Clayton Seafood — received a reduced number of visas.
Last June, U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an additional 15,000 H-2B visas but again used a lottery. Only A.E. Phillips and Sons had a golden ticket to receive workers. The lack of H-2B workers severely hurt local crab processors without having as many workers or none at all to pick the crab meat for sale.
“We have spoken numerous times in the past regarding the unpredictability of the guest worker visa system and the need for reform that meets the needs of American businesses and provides the necessary protections for workers employed in the United States for temporary work,” Cardin and Van Hollen wrote in their letter. “The lack of stability and certainty within the H-2B program has been detrimental to Maryland businesses. Maryland seafood industries have even seen an approximate 70 percent decrease in earnings due to the insecure labor market and lack of H-2B visas to fill those roles in remote areas. Many of these businesses have been in Maryland for generations and have relied on these short-term workers to keep up with market demands.
“Small business owners in Maryland have been forced to reduce or cancel contracts and are unable to properly plan or sustain their businesses,” the Senators wrote. “We urge you to take immediate action and release a sufficient number of additional visas. Your attention to this issue will ensure that Maryland businesses can operate successfully this year and retain their American workforce.”
Last summer, state representatives, including Gov. Larry Hogan, met with Dorchester crab processors to learn more about how the lack of workers hurts the crab industry.
In July, J.M. Clayton Seafood owner Jake Brooks called the shortage a catastrophe.
“In 1995, there were over 50 companies in the state of Maryland that does what this place would do if it had workers,” he said. “Now there are less than 20, and it is all because of attrition. We worry about who will be next. If nothing changes, it could be all of us.”