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Maryland Crab Business Jeopardized by Shortage of Foreign Workers

Olivia Rubio does the hard, tedious work of extracting crab meat on Hooper's Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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As a temporary guest worker, Rubio can live and work in the U.S. during the warmer months and then return to her home country in the winter.
workers at GW Hall & Son Seafood . VOA

Olivia Rubio does the hard, tedious work of extracting crab meat on Hooper’s Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Hooper’s Island is part of chain of three sparsely populated islands in the Chesapeake Bay. After crossing a single bridge, the main road winds through picturesque watermen’s villages and unpopulated areas. Hooper’s is a center for seafood catching and processing.

Rubio has been coming for 15 years from Mexico to work in one of the island’s crab houses on an H2-B visa — a guest worker program that has been a continual issue in the crab industry for business owners in the Maryland Eastern Shore.

“We have the opportunity to come here to work and support our family, help our children move forward, and support our parents. It’s good. We have work. So, we’re grateful,” Rubio said.

H2B visa holders pick crab meat at GW Hall & Son Seafood in Maryland. The state has 20 licensed crab businesses, employing 500 foreign workers. (A. Barros/VOA)

H2B visa holders pick crab meat at GW Hall & Son Seafood in Maryland. The state has 20 licensed crab businesses, employing 500 foreign workers. (A. Barros/VOA)

As a temporary guest worker, Rubio can live and work in the U.S. during the warmer months and then return to her home country in the winter.

Though glad to receive the visa, Rubio wonders about next year; the Trump administration, citing higher demand this year, awarded the visas by lottery, instead of first-come, first-served.

“I hope there are visas to be able to come back and do the work again,” she said.

Rubio’s employer, GW Hall & Son Seafood, needed 40 visas but only got enough for 30 guest workers.

“I don’t know what we would do or the whole area would do without them. I mean from the stores to… I don’t even know how to describe it because of the impact that they have. They keep it all moving,” Robin Hall, co-owner, GW Hall & Son Seafood, told VOA.

Visa shortage

Since the 1980s, crab houses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore have had to hire temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico, to extract meat from the crabs’ hard shells. Maryland has 20 licensed crab businesses, employing 500 foreign workers.

In fiscal year 2018, 66,000 H-2B visas were available nationwide for nonagricultural industries. In its budget bill passed in March, Congress said the cap could be raised.

Amid the crisis, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who represents Hooper’s Island in Congress, has asked the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor for extra guest worker visas.

H2B visa holders pick crab meat at GW Hall & Son Seafood in Maryland. The state has 20 licensed crab businesses, employing 500 foreign workers.
GW Hall & Son Seafood in Maryland. VOA

Harris said the fiscal year 2018 cap of H-2B visas was filled on January 1, 2018, which left many businesses unable to obtain the temporary seasonal labor they need.

Inside AE Phillips and Son in Eastern Maryland, part of the Phillips Seafood restaurant chain, which is shut down until more work visas become available. (A. Barros/VOA)

Inside AE Phillips and Son in Eastern Maryland, part of the Phillips Seafood restaurant chain, which is shut down until more work visas become available. (A. Barros/VOA)

“The H-2B visa program is a crucial resource for many seasonal businesses … and supports thousands of related jobs held by American citizens. … These temporary workers must pay American taxes, have a clean criminal record, receive no government benefits, and return to their home countries when their visas expire,” Harris said.

But on background, a DHS official offered “no new guidance to share.”

Continuing to pick crab meat, Rubio told VOA that a lot of her friends – who come annually – haven’t got visas.

“So they can’t come here to work, and they need it,” she said.

No workers

At nearby Russell Hall Seafood, the baskets and crates are empty. The kitchen is unused. There are no workers in sight.

Harry Phillips’ company, Russell Hall Seafood, needed 50 visas but got none.

“It never was this way before. We’ve done this for 25 years and no doubt some years it’s been slow getting workers, but we’ve always got them,” he said.

Phillips still has ads in local newspapers and is trying to hire local people.

“We have to actually advertise in newspapers before we’re allowed to even apply for the H-2B program workers, and we do that with a couple of different newspapers and I actually have ads in the paper now for workers, but nobody’s applied,” Phillips said.

Phillips does not like the lottery system when it comes to H-2B visas.

“That’s a big gamble. I mean, we can’t run our business at a gamble whether we’re going to get our workers or not.

Phillips’ work phone telephone rang. On the other end, a worker asked when visas would become available.

“You see? It’s them asking about the visas,” Phillips explained.

AE Phillips and Son, part of the Phillips Seafood restaurant chain, is also shut down unless workers become available. The company got its start in 1916.

H2B visa holders pick crab meat at GW Hall & Son Seafood in Maryland. The state has 20 licensed crab businesses, employing 500 foreign workers.
representational image. pixabay

But the plant’s general manager, Morgan Tolley, said he is “really worried” about 2019.

“We had some problems going on with immigration. A lot of issues are up in the air. A lot of things that people don’t understand or they think they understand. Speaking for the H2B program, which is a non-immigrant work visa, to me personally, that has nothing to do with immigration. It’s a non-immigrant work visa. These people take tremendous pride in the fact that they can come here to United States and work and go home and they’re proud of that right that they have earned,” Tolley said.

GW Hall & Son Seafood was awarded 30 H-2B visa workers but owner said 40 workers would have been ideal. (A. Barros/VOA)

GW Hall & Son Seafood was awarded 30 H-2B visa workers but owner said 40 workers would have been ideal. (A. Barros/VOA)

No locals anymore

“It tears me up.” Hall, who was operating with 75 percent of his workforce including Rubio, did not feel particularly happy or fortunate.

“I’m tickled to death to have [my workers]… But I want us all to get them. I’d really actually almost rather see everybody get them or nobody get them, so we could all be together as a group,” he said.

And he has no hope that American workers will fill the gap. “You rode down here, did you see any American people running around because there’s nobody around here?” he asked VOA.

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“The few people we have here are retired from somewhere else. They moved down here and have a home here on the water and this was a great vacation spot.

Standing on the platform where crabs would be unloaded when they came in, Hall continued, “There’s no local people here anymore. Population’s got so low that you can’t get anybody from it.” (VOA)

Next Story

U.S. Pentagon Emits More Greenhouse Gases Than Portugal, Study Finds

The Pentagon, which oversees the U.S. military, released about 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide

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U.S., Pentagon, Greenhouse Gases
FILE - The Pentagon building is seen in Washington. VOA

The United States creates more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions through its defense operations alone than industrialized countries such as Sweden and Portugal, researchers said Wednesday.

The Pentagon, which oversees the U.S. military, released about 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in 2017, according to the first study to compile such comprehensive data, published by Brown University.

The Pentagon’s emissions were “in any one year … greater than many smaller countries’ greenhouse gas emissions,” the study said.

If it were a country, its emissions would make it the world’s 55th-largest contributor, said Neta Crawford, the study’s author and a political scientist at Boston University.

U.S., Pentagon, Greenhouse Gases
FILE – Air pollution hangs over the skyline as the sun rises over Beijing’s central business district, Jan. 14, 2013. VOA

“There is a lot of room here to reduce emissions,” Crawford said.

Request for comments to the Pentagon went unanswered.

Troop movements

Using and moving troops and weapons accounted for about 70% of its energy consumption, mostly due to the burning of jet and diesel fuel, Crawford said.

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It dwarfed yearly emissions by Sweden, which the international research project Global Carbon Atlas ranks 65th worldwide for its of CO2 emissions.

Pentagon emissions were higher than those of Portugal, ranked 57th by the Global Carbon Atlas, said Crawford.

China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for climate change, followed by the United States.

The Pentagon called climate change “a national security issue” in a January report to Congress and has launched multiple initiatives to prepare for its impact.

U.S., Pentagon, Greenhouse Gases
The United States creates more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Pixabay

Global temperatures are on course for an increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5.4-9.0 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, far overshooting a global target of limiting the increase to 2 C or less, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said in November.

Four degrees Celsius of warming would increase more than five times the influence of climate on conflict, according to a study published in Nature magazine on Wednesday.

Improvements

Crawford said the Pentagon had reduced its fuel consumption significantly since 2009, including by making its vehicles more efficient and moving to cleaner sources of energy at bases.

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It could reduce them further by cutting fuel-heavy missions to the Persian Gulf to protect access to oil, which were no longer a top priority as renewable energy gained ground, she said.

“Many missions could actually be rethought, and it would make the world safer,” she said. (VOA)