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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
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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.

Also Read: Eating Fish Twice a Week Reduces the Risk of Heart Failure 

“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)

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Obamacare Unconstitutional: U.S. Federal Judge

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the judge’s decision “vindicates President Trump’s position that Obamacare is unconstitutional

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Protesters gather across the Chicago River from Trump Tower to rally against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, March 24, 2017, in Chicago. VOA

A U.S. federal judge has ruled that the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas ruled Friday that a change in the U.S. tax law last year eliminating a penalty for not having health insurance invalidates the entire ACA.

Last year’s $1.5 trillion tax bill included a provision eliminating the individual mandate.

The decision is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ACA will remain the law during the appeal process.

Health Insurance, U.S.
The HealthCare.gov website on a computer screen in New York, Oct. 23, 2018. A U.S. federal judge Friday ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. VOA

About 11.8 million consumers nationwide enrolled in 2018 Obamacare exchange plans, according to the U.S. government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

U.S. President Donald Trump promised during his presidential campaign to dismantle the ACA, a program that made affordable health insurance available to millions of Americans.

The president took to Twitter Friday night:

“The ruling seems to be based on faulty legal reasoning and hopefully it will be overturned,” U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “Americans who care about working families must do all they can to prevent this district court ruling from becoming law.

“If this awful ruling is upheld in the higher courts,” he added, “it will be a disaster for tens of millions of American families, especially for people with pre-existing conditions.”

Khashoggi, Trump, U.S.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey during a bill-signing ceremony at the White House in Washington. VOA

Americans with pre-existing conditions, before ACA, faced either high premiums or an inability to access health insurance at all.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the judge’s decision “vindicates President Trump’s position that Obamacare is unconstitutional. Once again, the president calls on Congress to replace Obamacare and act to protect people with pre-existing conditions and provide Americans with quality affordable health care.”

Also Read: Microsoft Adds ‘Digital Health’ Feature On its Beta Android Launcher

“Today’s misguided ruling will not deter us,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the leader of an alliance of states opposing the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Our coalition will continue to fight in court for the health and well-being for all Americans.” (VOA)