Border Closing, Visa Curbs Push Maryland Crab Houses to Brink

The new coronavirus pandemic, on top of the Trump administration’s caps on visas for temporary workers, may leave Maryland’s crab picking houses without the Mexican seasonal workers they’ve long relied on—less than a month away from the start of the state’s crabbing season.

President Donald Trump’s March 20 move to close the U.S.-Mexico border further complicated Maryland crabbers’ quandary. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf pledged that “essential commercial activities will not be impacted,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said H-2A agricultural-worker visas were a federal priority. Still, the outlook on the H-2B program that supplies crab pickers is murky.

The State Department dealt a blow to the crab houses March 17 when it curbed visa processing for seasonal migrant workers. At that time it said interviews required for visa applications were postponed until further notice but that returning guest workers would continue to be processed.

The department is “reviewing all possible options” for the H-2 program, said a spokesperson in an emailed statement March 20. While H-2A application guidelines were explained, the department wouldn’t comment on the H-2B program.

Fighting for temporary worker visas has been an annual event for owners of the processing plants that dot Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jack Brooks, head of the J.M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, said returning migrants make up 90% to 95% of the state’s seafood industry labor force.

“We get the same returning workers back year after year,” Brooks said in a telephone interview.

The congressional cap on H-2B visas is set at 66,000 per fiscal year, and the federal government recently permitted an additional 35,000. It’s still not enough, said Brooks, Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association president.

“Most of our seafood companies do not have any visas at this time,” he said. “April 1 is going to come and go, and these places are going to be closed.”

Policy Reactions

Speaking before the border closing was announced, a spokeswoman for Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said the suspensions “will undoubtedly affect Maryland’s crab industry.”

“The H-2B program is just as critical now as it was before the pandemic hit—possibly even more so, because the program creates twice as many up- and down-stream U.S. jobs,” Jaime Lennon said in an emailed statement March 19. “We don’t know how long it will take to get Main Street back to work, but delaying the arrival of seasonal workers will prolong the recovery.”

The government “will continue working to find ways to support this essential industry at the state and federal level,” said a Maryland Agriculture Department spokesperson in an emailed statement March 20.

In addition to the questions of whether they’ll get enough workers to open, the crab houses are seeing many of their markets dry up. Maryland had 244 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of March 22, according to the state health department, and Gov. Larry Hogan (R)declared a state of emergency on March 5 that shuttered sit-down bars and restaurants to reduce its spread.

(Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrant worker Minerva Nava (R), who had been picking crabs on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for more than 20 years, works with Maricela Sanchez (L) at Old Salty’s Seafood in Hoopers Island, Maryland, on August 9, 2018.

Seafood industry struggles

“At this point, I’m not even ordering crabs,” said Kim Gardner, manager of Locust Point Steamers, a Baltimore-based crab shack. “We’ve dropped about 90% in revenue” at the restaurant, she said in a telephone interview March 19. “It’s kind of horrible.”

George Klein, owner of Tyler’s Tackle Shop and Crab House in Chesapeake Beach, said, “I’ve never in my life seen nothing like this, riding down these roads and seeing all of these restaurants closed.”

A Maryland Watermen’s Association leader said his anxieties about the crabbing season include the pandemic wiping out the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holiday weekends.

“It’s an old saying” in the seafood industry, said Robert T. Brown, the group’s president, in a March 20 telephone interview: “If you hadn’t made any money by the Fourth of July, odds is you wasn’t going to make much money after that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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