(The Center Square) – The U.S. Department of Labor approved 32,000 additional H2-B temporary work visas to meet worker demand around the country, including Maryland’s struggling seafood industry, but some say it’s not enough.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, seafood processors rely on H2-B visa holders to supply their seasonal workforce, and without them, many will go under, according to Bill Seiling, executive vice president of Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
“There is no plan B,” he told The Center Square.
But there’s no guarantee Maryland processors will get a single one. The 32,000 additional visas will go into a lottery, out of which over 100,000 businesses are hoping to win.
“The backup is you go out of business for a minimum of a year and possibly forever because these are small, individual, family-owned companies – these aren’t people with deep pockets, these aren’t corporations that can have a bad year and say ‘OK, well we just write that off on our next year’s income taxes and move on,’ you know?” he said.
Congress authorized the Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security to issue up to 99,000 visas, according to Seiling, but the Department of Labor chose only to issue 32,000.
“So the Department of Labor wasn’t limited to 32,000,” he said. “They could have issued 50,000, 75,000, or 99,000 if they had so chosen. If they had issued 99,000 they probably would have pretty much satisfied almost all the employers in the country that wanted to hire this type of worker, but instead, they decided to issue this absurdly low number of 32,000 additional visas.”
By one seafood association member’s rough calculation, only one in six Maryland seafood processors will have a chance at a visa. Seiling said this is not enough to truly help.
What processors in the Chesapeake Bay and others in Maryland need is a “carve-out,” Seiling said, similar to Alaska. There, limits on visas do not apply to the seafood industry.
Seiling pointed out farmers have no limit on H2-A visas either.
“We are dealing in a food product, and the federal government has declared that food is a critical national commodity, that food workers are exempt from the normal rules that govern the use of foreign labor,” he said.
A carve-out would be the ideal answer, but Seiling said there’s pretty much no chance that will happen.
A returning worker exemption would provide a one-year fix, but that’s unlikely, too, he said.
“Even if we got the returning-worker exemption, we probably wouldn’t get any workers until June at the earliest,” Seiling said. “So there’s nothing good in this story – nothing – there is no good story here. It’s all bad news, it’s just a question of how bad the news is.”
For crab processors trying to survive this year, there is very little hope.
And it’s not just the processors who suffer.
Without the processors there to buy crabs, Seiling pointed out the crab men will not have buyers.