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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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Casualties Continue To Occur Post Hurricane Michael

Residents began to return to the devastated town in search of anything that could help them rebuild their lives.

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Hurricane Michael
Wes Allen Jr., from left, sits with his father, Wes, his sister, Alison and his mother, Vicki, outside their room at a damaged motel, Oct. 16, 2018, in Panama City, Fla., where many residents continue to live in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Many residents rode out the storm and have no place to go, even though many of the motel's rooms are uninhabitable. VOA

Almost a week after Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle, Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said two more deaths had been confirmed in the small seaside town.

Cathey said Tuesday that the victims were a man and a woman who lived in separate homes and had not evacuated. He did not give the victims’ names or say how they died.

The announcement brought to 12 the number of people killed in Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach and another hard-hit town, Panama City.

Climate Change, hurricane michael
Scenes of devastation in Mexico Beach, Florida in the aftermath for Hurricane Michael.. VOA

The county took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, one of the most intense hurricanes to ever hit the United States.

According to the Associated Press, the storm death toll stood at 16 in Florida and 10 combined in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina.

Life in the hard-hit areas improved drastically as widespread cellphone service returned Tuesday for the first time since the storm.

Residents began to return to the devastated town in search of anything that could help them rebuild their lives.

Climate Change, hurricane michael
Scenes of devastation in Mexico Beach, Florida in the aftermath for Hurricane Michael. VOA

“We really don’t know our plan. We just came to take a first look of the house, analyze and maybe come up with a long-term plan, hopefully,” Joseph Bran of Mexico Beach said as he searched through the debris of his home.

Also Read: A Weakened Hurricane Florence Is Still Dangerous

Another Mexico Beach resident looked on the bright side. “I love it here, the sunset is beautiful, and the Gulf of Mexico got the best fishes of the world,” Scott Collins said. (VOA)