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Rep. Andy Harris meets with business owners to discuss crab picker shortage

May 30, 2018
In The News

Rep. Andy Harris met with business owners impacted by a shortage of crab pickers Wednesday afternoon to hear their problems and pose long-term solutions -- and got an earful.

Congress and the Trump administration tightened the guest worker visa program. Because demand is so high, the Trump administration imposed a lottery to award them. It is keeping Mexican workers from making their seasonal trek to Maryland -- and many Eastern Shore businesses are feeling pinched.

The allocation is leaving the 20 licensed processors in a real pinch. Some don't have any workers, others are dealing with a 40 percent decline of them.

This time of year, Lindy's Seafood is usually packed with Mexican workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder picking the meat enjoyed in crab cakes and other delicacies, but not this year. It is taking deliveries of live crabs only. It has no pickers because Congress limited the number of guest worker visas.

Harris held court with some of those impacted in Lindy's parking lot.

"We are headed down that way. I think we are living (a catastrophe) right now," said Jack Brooks, owner of J.M. Clayton in Cambridge.

"The biggest fear you see now as watermen (is), 'Where am I going to sell my crabs?" said Morgan Tolley, of A.E Phillips and Sons.

"Our whole goal is to, first, get over this obstacle, which is getting this 33,000 cap raised," Harris said.

"An increased cap would be great, but that just puts us at the same risk," Brooks said.

Guest worker visas are coveted by crab processors. Despite advertising the jobs, Americans aren't biting, even though the pay is $16.25 an hour. So, for the past 25 years, crab processors have counted on Mexicans making a seasonal journey to Maryland.

"The solution in the end is to match the need, the workplace need, with the supply of temporary workers," Harris said.

Those impacted suggested getting rid of the lottery, exempting returning workers, giving small businesses a preference and to better define what it means to be seasonal. Word that relief is in the works still makes processors anxious.

"With those appointments, we will be able to get workers in here by the end of June," said Aubrey Vincent, owner of Lindy's Seafood.

Relief is expected this summer when an additional 15,000 visas become available, but there's no guarantee with a lottery system still in place. There is also concern Mexican workers won't arrive in time to salvage the season.