Mikulski bill targets seafood-worker shortage

Legislation would exempt any returning workers from visa limit for 2 years

February 11, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski introduced legislation yesterday offering a temporary solution to a labor shortage that threatens to severely disrupt Maryland's crab-picking operations and other summer industries.

The bill, called the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, is aimed at problems associated with the H2B visa program, which allows seasonal workers from other countries to take jobs that are hard to fill, such as picking crabs and shucking oysters.

The program, in effect since 1990, permits 66,000 workers to enter the United States each year. This year's limit was reached early last month, before Maryland seafood processors and landscapers were allowed to apply.

Mikulski's bill, co-sponsored by New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, would exempt returning H2B workers from the limit for two years. That exemption would give Congress time to craft a larger immigration bill while addressing the current emergency, Mikulski said yesterday.

"We're in a crisis," she said. "We're working on a bipartisan basis. We have a very specific legislative remedy."

Mikulski's bill also includes an anti-fraud provision that would sanction companies that provide false information on their visa applications. It also would create reporting requirements for the Department of Homeland Security so that the agency would know how many workers enter under the program each year. That information, Mikulski said, would help Congress determine what additional changes should be made.

The bill also seeks to equalize the competition for the seasonal workers, many of whom come from Mexico. Under the current system, employers can apply 120 days before they need the workers. As a result, winter resorts can apply in late summer, but the seafood industry, which needs its workers by the end of March, has to wait until November. This year, many had just mailed their applications when word came that the annual limit had been reached.

Mikulski wants to reserve half of the 66,000 limit for employers needing workers in the winter and half for those needing workers in the summer.

She said she would continue working toward a permanent solution. Last week, she brought together prospective employers and advocates for the Hispanic community to determine whether recent immigrants would be interested in seasonal jobs. This weekend, several seafood processors will attend a job fair in Prince George's County in hopes of finding workers.

Seafood processors, who met yesterday at Old Salty's restaurant on Hooper's Island to discuss the worker shortage, praised Mikulski's efforts.

"It's a help. We've got to do something for the immediate," said Jay Newcomb, who co-owns Old Salty's and manages A.E. Phillips and Son Inc.'s seafood workers. "At least it's a proposal to get us through this season and next season."

Newcomb's operation is one of about 20 Maryland seafood businesses that will not be getting H2B workers this year unless the law is changed. Four seafood processors were able to apply for workers in time, the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association said.

Jack Brooks, one of the owners of J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, said his company was one of the few that managed to get workers this year. But he said the shortage affects everyone, from watermen looking to take their crabs to market to his competitors.

"We have enough things working against us," he said. "I want to see everyone stay in business. And as it is right now, they won't."

Despite widespread bipartisan support for the measure, Mikulski and her staff acknowledge that she faces hurdles in getting her bill passed. They expect opposition in the House of Representatives, where it might prove difficult to separate the bill from the larger issues of immigration reform.

Mikulski noted that Congress is busy, particularly with a proposed Social Security overhaul. And any remedy has to be quick, as the seafood and landscaping industries will need the workers by the end of next month.

Still, Mikulski said she is optimistic about the bill's chances.

"On a scale of 0 to 10, I'm going to make this an 11," she said. "I'd like to have it done by [the Orioles'] Opening Day."

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