Shortage of pickers is creating hardships

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan General Manager of AE Phillips Seafood Morgan Tolley stood outside the closed picking house on Hoopers Island on Friday.

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan
General Manager of AE Phillips Seafood Morgan Tolley stood outside the closed picking house on Hoopers Island on Friday.

HOOPERS ISLAND – It could be a tough season for one of Dorchester County’s traditional industries.

A shortage of visas for temporary foreign workers has restricted or, in some cases, halted the work of crab picking houses and associated businesses. Now, individuals, companies and entire towns are facing a significant loss of income.

All this is happening in an area that considers everything crab related to be central to its local culture and identity.

“Right now, my doors are shut,” General Manager of AE Phillips Seafood Morgan Tolley said on Friday. “This was voted the best small town in Maryland. It’s not looking too good right now.”

At issue is the H2B visa program, under the conditions of which temporary, non-immigrant workers are admitted to the United States. The number of visas available this year under the program was capped at 60,000 for the entire country.

Managers and owners across a wide range of industries – not only seafood, but also landscaping, hospitality, construction and others – say that’s not enough.

Hoping for more visas
Aubrey Vincent is one of the owners of Lindy’s Seafood in Woolford.

“We use the H2B program,” she said. “They hit the cap on the first day.”

The cap, or limit, on the number of visas permitted was put in place in the 1990s. When the original visas were snapped up, the federal government authorized an additional 15,000 to be distributed by lottery.

That helped some, but not all of the businesses involved.

Mr. Tolley noted there are eight seafood processors in Dorchester. “Four got visas and four didn’t,” he said.

So now, there are plenty of jobs available, but it seems they are not attractive to local workers. With its emphasis on speed, accuracy and pay by the pound, picking is a difficult way to make a living.

“We have about 20 local pickers,” Ms. Vincent said. “We have 104 job openings.”

Effect of national politics
Still, there is a way to alleviate the situation.

“[In March], Congressional leaders agreed to include language in the 2018 budget bill that authorizes the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to issue additional H-2B visas,” an article on said. “It grants discretion to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to issue additional visas up to the historic maximum number that were issued in a single year when a returning worker exemption was in place.”

But a move in that direction could be blocked in Washington, D.C., by an Administration that has pledged to restrict immigration. That’s beside the point to many of those affected.

That’s because the H2B visas are specifically for temporary workers. “These people don’t want to stay here,” Mr. Tolley said.

In fact, he added that the people on his crew pride themselves on sending part of their income home to assist their families in Mexico, and then returning at the end of the season. Many of the approximately 500 seasonal workers who come to Dorchester County have been doing it for many years.

Wondering what’s next
Mr. Tolley has employees who have been at AE Phillips for 20 years. Some represent their families’ second generation with the Fishing Creek company.

Now, they are still at home in Mexico, some seeing their neighbors pack up to return to the Eastern Shore, and wondering what is happening. “We’ve tried to stay engaged, to stay positive,” Mr. Tolley said.

He added that while the government might release those additional 15,000 visas, those would be available for all of the United States, not only Maryland, and would still be distributed by lottery.

So there is not only no guarantee that local businesses will get the workers they need, there will also be competition from other industries.
Paul Mendelsohn wrote on the National Association of Landscape Professionals’ website, saying, “Last year was the first year they had language like this and it took a while to formally act on it. So, we’re hoping (the department) will act quickly, but we don’t have any way of knowing what they are going to do.”

Governor’s support
That uncertainty reaches Annapolis, as well.

“I am continuing to call on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Labor to raise the cap on the H-2B program — the guest workers under this temporary worker visa are critical to Maryland’s seasonal blue crab industry and our state economy,” Gov. Larry Hogan said on May 4.

As leaders in the state and national capitals study the issue, the effects are hitting Dorchester bank accounts.

Katie Phillips Doll manages the Hoopers Island General Store. She has seen her traffic drop off sharply, compared to previous years.

“It’s 12 o’clock and there’s nobody here,” she said as she looked around the store’s interior. “Not having the workers here is major for this whole island.”

Some of her staff are the wives of watermen. They have taken on as many extra hours as Ms. Doll can give them, but that’s not a lot, with fewer customers in town.

“For me, it’s lack of sales and lack of hours,” she said.

Need for a permanent fix
It’s a familiar situation to Ms. Vincent, who said the visa program “supports a lot of American jobs.” The jobs of her 20 local workers are in danger, she said, as Lindy’s continues to lose money.

“I may have to lay them off,” she said. “We’re holding on as best we can. You can only lose money so long.”

“I don’t want to lose anybody because of some arbitrary lottery,” she said. “We need a permanent fix for this program.”

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