Dorchester crab houses have bone to pick with guest worker visa cap

Just one company will be able to fill seasonal workforce

By Debra R. Messick, Special to the Dorchester Banner
Posted 3/8/22

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — For most folks, not winning the lottery won’t impact their very survival.

But for Dorchester County crab houses, losing out in the crucial visiting worker program visa sweepstakes is spelling disaster.

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Dorchester crab houses have bone to pick with guest worker visa cap

Just one company will be able to fill seasonal workforce


CAMBRIDGE, Md. — For most folks, not winning the lottery won’t impact their very survival.

But for Dorchester County crab houses, losing out in the crucial visiting worker program visa sweepstakes is spelling disaster.

As the 2022 crab season begins April 1, only one company, G.W. Hall Seafood, has enough visas to cover its crab-picking labor force this year.

Jack Brooks of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge is widely respected as a leading voice among this area’s seafood-packaging businesses. His perspective comes from being part of the oldest working crab-processing plant in the world, a company that has operated for over 100 years supplying crabs and seafood to wholesalers, distributors, restaurants and chain stores throughout the country.

He’s experienced firsthand how changing times have impacted the industry’s operations, especially its vitally essential workforce.

Traditionally, and up through the 1950s and ‘60s, county residents were willing and able to do the labor-intensive seasonal work of removing succulent crabmeat from shells.

“When I first came to work here, a long time ago, the older people brought their kids with them. They wanted them to learn a trade and a strong work ethic,” Mr. Brooks recalled.

But times changed. “With other opportunities, education, trade school, community colleges, retail, people don’t have to take these jobs, which are seasonal and hard work. When you get laid off every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, it makes it tough,” he added.

As the local labor force decreased, seafood processors were awarded special visas to bring in workers. Many from Latin American countries were eager to take on the tough job of picking crabs, make decent money and return home until the following season.

A first for Maryland

In fact, the seafood industry was the first in Maryland to use the visa program known as H-2B in the 1980s and ‘90s, Mr. Brooks noted.

“Overall, it’s a program that works because seafood industry demand for workers is static, due in large part to the number of crabs, oysters or fish caught being managed,” he explained. “There are limits on how many you can catch, so that means you have a limit on how many workers you need. Nationwide, outside of Alaska, the number is 6,000,” Mr. Brooks said.

Unlike agricultural visiting worker visas (H-2A), before becoming eligible for H-2B visas, companies must meet certain requirements. They need to be seasonal, they need to try to recruit American workers, and they need to provide pay that meets locally accepted standards. Dorchester producers have met these requirements with no problem, he said.

However, in 2005, they suddenly became aware that the program was, in fact, operating under a provisional cap, limiting the total number of visas available, and that the seafood industry had to compete with others, such as landscaping and hospitality, that were also applying for visiting worker visas to do the seasonal jobs they had trouble filling.

“That’s when the economy really started heating up, so the service industries really started grabbing these visas. That continued through ’08 and ’09. When the economy cooled off in ’10, ’11, ’12 and ’13, the cap wasn’t a problem. But in ’15 and ’16, things started warming up again economically, and we started seeing the cap get met earlier each year. Since then, in ’17, ’18 and ’19, it’s been a really bad problem again,” Mr. Brooks noted.

This year, with only 1 of 10 Dorchester seafood-packaging houses being allotted any visas under the lottery system, it’s looking to be the most devastating year yet, he added.

On Feb. 24, the Dorchester Seafood Heritage Association held a press conference at W.T. Ruark & Co. in Fishing Creek, and it became a rallying cry, calling attention to a recent study sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association and supported by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Conducted by Market Solutions, the study collected economic impact data by surveying 11 of the state’s major crab-processing companies.

It found that Maryland seafood processors supply or sell directly to 290 local restaurants, 218 food service distributors, 89 value-added processors, 265 retailers and 5,500 consumers.

Further results indicated that, if no change is made, and the state’s seafood processors experience a 90% drop in visas and workers, almost 3 out of 4 will likely be required to shut down for the season. That will cost Maryland’s economy about $141 million-plus and a loss of 846-1,257 jobs that exist because the crab processors have enough seasonal foreign labor, the study concluded.

Effect on Dorchester

Susan Banks, Dorchester County’s economic development director, agreed that if local seafood companies had to close or severely curtail operations, as is predicted with no change to the visa allotment, it will greatly affect the county’s economy.

“While this will affect jobs directly related to the industry, it will also cause a ripple effect throughout the wider economy,” Ms. Banks said.

“It’s frustrating that we have to even have this conversation. Dorchester is a major player in Maryland’s vital seafood industry. We know the value of guest workers. We also know (we) can’t keep putting a Band-Aid on the problem each year and expect it to be sustainable. The limited crab production will reduce watermen incomes and those of everyone tied to processing, packaging and distribution, all the way to our restaurants and vendors,” she added.

One of those establishments, Ocean Odyssey Restaurant in Cambridge, is run by Travis Todd and Ian Campbell, who took over from Mr. Todd’s parents in 2019.

“Our family started in seafood packaging, crabmeat specifically, in 1947 with a packing plant in Crocheron. So we have a long history of seafood processing, respect for the industry that comes along with that,” Mr. Todd said.

Since the late 1990s, they’ve focused mainly on the restaurant.

“A major part of what we do here is highlight Maryland crabmeat. We pride ourselves on having never used any imported crabmeat, always using 100% domestic product, primarily from Dorchester County. For over three decades, we’ve had local folks and tourists who love to come and eat those products, and we’re talking about hundreds of pounds of meat a week, that we’re not going to be able to get this year,” Mr. Todd added. “We’re looking at our only other option being to buy imported crabmeat from Venezuela or what have you, which a lot of restaurants do, but we’ve always drawn that line in the sand. It’s not something we want to do.”

Mike and Melinda Perry purchased Fishing Creek’s iconic Old Salty’s Restaurant last year. Mr. Perry foresees that the crab picker shortfall “is definitely going to affect everybody, especially on Hooper’s Island.”

“We’re used to having competitive prices from different people, but now, it seems like it’s all going to be just one person. Between that and the fuel prices going up, it looks like crabmeat will eventually be out-priced, where we won’t be able to sell it in our restaurants, which is damaging to the whole community and area,” he said.

“That’s what Maryland’s all about, coming here to have fresh-picked crabmeat and crab cakes. Being without it kind of hurts everybody. I mean, the local stores — where the watermen get their fuel and breakfast sandwiches and drinks for the day — to the restaurant and our employees. You can pretty much go anywhere to get your foreign crabmeat. But that doesn’t fit with how we see ourselves. We’re about serving fresh local crab and fish,” Mr. Perry added.

“It’s hard to run a business not knowing if we’re going to be able to get fresh crabmeat or not. The uncertainty puts a drain on the entire community. Something has to change. It’s hard to believe that there are people in the positions they’re in that can’t get this resolved to help everybody out.”

He added, “I’m not in the picking businesses, and this is just my personal opinion, but if there are 1,000 visitor worker visas available under the cap, dividing them up evenly among the processors would be the fairer road to go.”

Political pull

In January, Gov. Larry Hogan added his name to a letter signed by a bipartisan governors group urging President Joe Biden to “help us increase work-based visas to address persistent labor shortages, especially in the seafood industry.”

Additionally, in a Feb. 15 letter, Gov. Hogan urged the Maryland congressional delegation to add their voices to those calling for additional visas. And on Feb. 24, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot made public his letter to Ur M. Jaddou, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, imploring her to take “critically important and urgent” action to increase the number of visas available to “prevent what will surely be an unnecessary and devastating blow to Maryland’s Seafood Industry, our economy, and the thousands of Marylanders and small businesses whose livelihoods depend on this industry’s continued success.”

Mr. Brooks is thankful for these measures.

“Our Maryland delegation has been very supportive. This is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “One key problem had been that you can’t apply for visas earlier than 90 days prior to your date of need. So ski businesses in Vermont or Colorado would get to the front of the line because their seasonal need would come before ours. We’d end up in the back of the line, and the total of 66,000 visas available annually on Oct. 1 would run out.

“In 2005, Sen. (Barbara) Mikulski was able to get that number split in half, so we would have 33,000 available Oct. 1 and 33,000 on April 1, and that did not (have a sunset date written in). Still, this year, during the first two days the 33,000 available visas could be applied for, there were 140,000 requests.”

Mr. Brooks added that another of Sen. Mikulski’s ideas, the returning-worker exemption, also passed but has since lapsed.

“The returning-worker exemption basically excluded any worker in good standing that has worked in the country under the program for one of the three previous years from being counted against the cap, so that fixed our problem,” he said.

When he and others asked why it wasn’t continued, they were told that it was expected to be resolved when immigration reform was taken up, Mr. Brooks said. “I said, this is not an immigration issue because these people don’t immigrate. They come here, year after year, work for the season and go home. That’s why they like it and why we like it.

“But here we still are, 17 years later. It’s extremely frustrating. We’re all getting to the end of our ropes. I mean, how can you plan, make contracts with your suppliers, your crabbers, your customers? They want some stability. They need to know, ‘I can depend on Clayton’s or Ruark’s or anyone on Hooper’s Island for my crabmeat.’ And if you’re not dependable, they’re gonna get their stuff somewhere they can depend on getting it, like China or Venezuela,” Mr. Brooks said.

“Sometimes, we’re accused of crying, ‘The sky is falling.’ But in 1995, there were 54 companies in Maryland that do what we do, and now, there are less than 20, probably less than 15 operating. And where we hosted our event on Feb. 24, W.T. Ruark in Fishing Creek, they’ve put their business up for sale. We just can’t do it anymore.”

Overall, he feels that the H-2B program works, except for the arbitrary numerical cap. For a possible solution, Mr. Brooks points to “a little phrase” inserted into an early-2000s large defense spending bill by then-Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, basically calling for all fish roe processors to be exempted from the numerical cap.

“So let’s just add the word ‘seafood’ to that,” Mr. Brooks suggested.

Photographer Jay Fleming has spent years immersing himself in the local crabbing and fishing communities, gathering material for his two books, “Working the Water” and “Island Life.” He credits Mr. Brooks for being the first to welcome him to visit Clayton’s in 2013 and invite him to take pictures of the picking process regularly.

Mr. Fleming, who speaks “a little Spanish,” has conversed with a number of the visiting crab pickers over the years and gleaned some insight from them.

“It’s pretty remarkable, when you think about it. Some of these pickers have been coming back to work at these crab houses for around 20 years. It really is a testament to the fact that there is a good financial opportunity for them to come here and work. And it speaks a lot about how their employers treat them,” he said. “I wouldn’t imagine if they were treated poorly or felt exploited, they would want to come back.

“Unfortunately, local people have drifted away from crab picking and oyster shucking, sadly, just like wooden boat building and sail making, occupations like that are largely a thing of the past. That’s just how industries go. Everything changes. People have to be able to adapt to it. If the H-2B visa program was able to be reformed in a way that allowed more to be released, without lumping the seafood industry in with other nonagricultural businesses, that would help.”