Help may be coming for local crab processors
WOOLFORD — Dorchester County crab meat processors recently received a glimmer of hope in an effort to save the Maryland crab season and the entire state crab industry.
Traditionally, Dorchester crab meat 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 H-2B applications associated with the rebuild of Texas after last hurricane season, the program, which is capped at 66,000 visas (33,000 for six months), used a lottery to give out visas.
The result led to the loss of more than 40 percent of the workforce for Dorchester crab meat processors. 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.
With Dorchester representing more than 60 percent of crab meat processors in the state, the worker shortage has put the industry on the heels of going out of business.
The lifeline may be getting thrown to the Dorchester processors as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it will issue an additional 15,000 H-2B visas this year.
The good news is dulled because processors remain unsure if the process will again be by lottery or if applications will be approved in the traditional first-come, first-serve manner.
“There is still no guarantee we are going to have the workers we need,” said Lindy’s Seafood owner Aubrey Vincent. “We have been fortunate our customers and our full-time employees have held on with us, but I don’t know if they are going to be able to hold on for the rest of the summer unless we have some type of resolution.
“If we don’t have the crab meat available, it makes businesses look for other options because they have a business to run as well,” she said. “Once we lose those businesses, they may never come back to us. It affects the entire community. With increased demand, 100 percent of the industry could be shut out if a lottery stays in place.”
U.S. Rep Andy Harris, R-Md., met with Vincent and other Dorchester crab meat processors Wednesday, May 30, at Lindy’s Seafood in Woolford to hear their concerns and give an update on the situation.
“My goal is to get it as equitably resolved for this year, but then looking forward, we have to devise a system that protects this industry,” he said. “It is very important to get the workers in for this season, and then to get a plan to make sure this does not happen again.”
The processors told Harris if their applications get approved, it would take until late June and early July for the workers to arrive.
“The shutdown we are experiencing now is just horrific,” said J.M. Clayton Seafood owner Jake Brooks. “We are never going to recapture what we have lost. It is gone. We are heading down a bad road. We are living a catastrophe.”
Harris said he is pushing for applicants to get at least some visas approved to avoid someone getting shut out for this season.
“I think the 15,000 visas will be enough to help businesses get by for this season,” he said. “We need to make sure businesses can make it out of this season healthy.”
As for the future, Harris is exploring if the seafood industry can be moved from the capped H-2B program to the uncapped H-2A program. He also wants to see if applications for workers involved with disaster relief can be exempt from the cap.
“The industries here year after year need to be taken care of,” he said. “We need to find a way to make sure this never happens again for them.
“These businesses face great concern each year whether they will get visas,” Harris said. “We need to have a system in place that gives our businesses a better gauge for the future rather than the short-term notice they have been getting.”