Limit on seasonal workers vexes employers

State's seafood, tourism and landscaping industries rely on foreign laborers

Proposal would bypass federal quota

February 27, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

With only a few months until summer, employers and legislators in Maryland and elsewhere are scrambling to avert what they say could be a labor crisis for the seafood, landscaping and tourism industries.

The problem stems from a limit on how many seasonal workers are allowed into the United States under a federal visa known as H2B. The program lets 66,000 workers into the country each year for temporary jobs in non-agricultural industries.

Though many more foreign workers enter the country under different visa categories - including students, computer specialists, surgeons and fruit pickers - it is the H2B program that has left many East Coast businesses wondering whether they will survive the coming season.

The 66,000 limit was set when the program began in 1990, and for more than a decade the number wasn't an issue. But last year the quota was filled by March. And this year it was reached in January - early enough to close the door to many Maryland industries.

Twenty-five Maryland seafood processors want the foreign workers, but only four will get them unless a last-minute reprieve comes from Capitol Hill. With the Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest set to begin, the companies say they could have to shut down if a quick solution isn't found.

"This is going to change the face of waterfront towns all over Maryland," said Karen Oertel, whose family has run a Kent Island seafood business for 60 years. Without labor from Mexico, she said, she and others could have to shut down.

This month, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, and New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, sponsored a bill that would allow foreign workers who held jobs through the program in the past to return this year and next year regardless of the cap. That exemption would give Congress time to craft a more comprehensive immigration bill while addressing the current emergency.

The bill, called the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, would also create reporting requirements so the Department of Homeland Security could keep better records on the workers.

One key provision seeks to equalize competition by giving half of the visas to states needing workers in the winter and the rest to those needing workers in the summer.

Under the current system, employers can apply only 120 days before the workers would start - giving an advantage to states with winter needs, such as Florida and California. Maryland's seafood industry, which generally doesn't need workers before March or April, can't apply until November or later.

Mikulski's bill, which is pending in the Judiciary Committee, is the latest attempt to help seasonal businesses. Last year, when word came that the 2004 H2B limit was met in March, several senators sponsored legislation to increase the cap. But the bill never came up for a vote, in part because it became mired in a larger discussion about immigration reform.

The H2B program has its critics. Some, such as Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, worry that the cheap foreign labor keeps American wages low and therefore hurts American workers. Others, such as CASA de Maryland's Kim Propeack, say the program doesn't offer vulnerable workers enough protection from potential abuses.

"If the worker complains, they're fired. The status is terminated," Propeack said.

Mikulski and her staff acknowledge that their bill faces hurdles. And Jesse Jacobs, press secretary to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, pointed out that the legislation hasn't received support from the Bush administration.

"Without their support, it's going to be a tough row to hoe," said Jacobs, who said Sarbanes has been lobbying for a solution to the problem.

Many businesses say the legislation is their only hope for a successful season.

"We've got our fingers crossed. That's the only thing we've got going right now," said Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall seafood on Hooper's Island.

Maryland's seafood processors bring in workers from Mexico - mostly women who return every year. The employers provide housing and deduct the cost of rent from salaries.

Phillips said he and other processors have advertised their positions, participated in job fairs, and met with Hispanic community advocates to see whether recent immigrants want the jobs. He said he's going to another job fair this weekend, but so far, he has had no luck.

"We've advertised, and we never have a single person apply. Not one single person," he said. "We built our business around the migrant workers, and now we're hung out to dry because there's no migrant workers available. I just don't know what else we can do."

If his company can't get the 50 or so workers it needs to pick the crabs that it packages and sells, Phillips said, he might not be able to open - a decision that would put about 30 of his Eastern Shore workers out of a job.

Some New England industries, which struggle to find workers in remote areas far from employment centers, faced a similar dilemma when the cap was reached in March 2004.

In Maine, where only 600 H2B workers were allowed in for a hospitality industry that usually employs 2,600, many inns reached out to career centers in large cities. When that wasn't enough, they cut restaurant hours or closed early for the season, said Greg Bugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

"Anything you can think of, we did," Bugal said.

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