The Continuing H-2B Saga of Maryland's Crab Pickers

By Preston Huennekens on August 27, 2018

The Washington Post recently published another story on the labor challenges of Maryland's crab-picking industry. The article, titled "Please Come Help", is summarized faithfully by its subtitle text: "Eastern Shore crab houses are suffering this summer because they didn't get the visas needed to hire enough pickers from Mexico."

The article makes clear that the companies have relied solely on the H-2B program for labor since at least 1992. Because the program operated to their benefit between then and 2017, none of the companies had any kind of backup plan and operated as if they would always receive "their" workers.

The article's author points the finger at the Trump administration's recent moves to reign in the H-2B program: "The Trump administration announced this past winter that it would distribute the temporary visas through a lottery — not the first-come, first-served system previously in place. In addition, Congress dropped a rule in 2017 that said workers who had gotten visas in the past could get them again without counting toward the annual cap."

The author outlines how the companies have tried to attract American labor. They have raised wages, partnered with temp agencies, and tried to shift the responsibilities of other employees. Still, they complain that none of that has been sufficient to replace the lost productivity of the H-2B crab-pickers.

At first blush, the crab-picking firms certainly appear to be in a bind. But as my colleagues and I have argued before, the answer is not to continue raising the number of available H-2B visas. Instead, assuming the H-2B visa program is to be preserved at all, we need to look seriously and soberly at how it is currently run and make policy changes that enhance its efficiency and fulfill its ostensible purpose.

Simply adding more H-2B visas into the pool under current rules would not necessarily help the Maryland crab pickers. Under the current system, where visas are distributed by lottery, it is likely that additional workers would simply go to landscaping firms, which are the main users of H-2B workers. In FY 2017, landscapers received 53,938 certified positions for H-2B workers. The next-highest occupation, forestry workers, received just 10,918 spots.

Reverting to the previous first-come-first-served arrangement would not work either. Certified positions have grown every year since FY 2013, and there is no reason to believe that this trend will reverse anytime soon. With most of those positions going to landscaping and forestry companies, how much longer was it going to take until the crab pickers were pushed out entirely?

Nor does exempting returning workers from the numerical cap make sense; it is supposed to be a cap, after all.

The crab firms say they have few options. They can either try to adapt, go out of business, or move their business elsewhere. One of the owners suggested moving his entire business to Mexico: "At Russell Hall, [the owner] is weighing whether to pack up and move his operation to Mexico. 'What future's gonna be here if we don't know if we're gonna get our workers?' [he] said. 'Our girls are right in Mexico, and they have crabs just like we have.'"

Other businesses have raised wages to reflect the tightening labor market. As my colleague Mark Krikorian has noted, "a tight labor market means that our fellow citizens who are the least attractive to employers — and on whose support we collectively spend billions — suddenly become a lot more attractive."

It is puzzling that an owner has the resources to move an entire company's operation to Mexico, but apparently not enough to invest in labor-saving technology or to seek out workers in regions of Maryland with high jobless rates, as my colleague Andrew Arthur has suggested.

The issue here, of course, is that the H-2B program is flawed and has betrayed its original, intended purpose of filling true labor shortages.

Regardless of the shortsightedness of relying entirely on the H-2B program for their labor, there may be a genuine labor shortage for crab-pickers. On the same note, it is unlikely that a landscaping company in Texas or a state fair in Ohio is facing an insurmountable labor shortage that could only be relieved by the importation of guest workers. Not every "shortage" is the same.

How, then, could this be addressed? One approach might be enhancing further the visa allocation process by researching and comparing the claims of employers against the realities of the proposed worksite's labor market. This would take significantly more effort on the part of USCIS, but it is their job to ensure that employing H-2B workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. It would also ensure that employers who truly faced a labor shortage could receive relief by way of H-2B labor.

This would mean that USCIS would need to limit what companies and occupational categories are eligible for the H-2B program. No two situations are the same. Landscaping companies in major metropolitan areas cannot make the same claims as a unique industry in a thinly populated area.

The Maryland crab pickers continue to draw the wrong conclusions about their plight. Simply increasing the number of H-2B workers will not alleviate their woes; it would only continue to fuel a problematic visa program in dire need of reform.

Instead of fighting for a bigger visa program, the crab pickers and industries like them would promote their own interests more effectively by lobbying the Department of Labor to stop certifying so many positions in industries that do not face the kind of labor challenges they face, and only certify positions for industries like theirs.