Passing time

April 09, 2005|By Marjorie Valbrun

EVERY FEW DAYS, Brian Hall gets a call from one of his "girls," wanting an update on when she can return to work. "They're calling me crying," he says. He wishes he could tell them to come right away, but he can't.

The empty long gray tables and chairs, the only furniture inside Mr. Hall's otherwise machine-operated crab processing plant, almost cry out for the 30 young Mexican women who come to work for him each spring. Their fast but gentle handiwork prying loose chunks of crabmeat from shells have made them vital human cogs in his Hooper's Island crabbing operation. The women would normally be arriving this week in time for the blue crab harvest. Instead, they and nearly 1,000 others are cooling their heels south of the border, unable to travel here because of a shortage of seasonal work visas.

As a result, an air of desperation hangs over the Eastern Shore, where owners of crab processing plants have been seeking replacement workers for months. They mined job fairs and employment centers in Baltimore, set up hiring booths at immigrant advocacy centers in Langley Park, and courted organizations that help disabled people find work. They advertised in newspapers and churches, signed on with youth job programs, and even tapped local detention centers and state penitentiaries for inmates in work release programs.

They got no takers for the minimum-wage jobs. "It's a crisis, it really is," says Mr. Hall, who along with his 22-year-old son Derek runs G. W. Hall & Son Seafood, which was started by his grandfather, George W. Hall, in 1940.

The cap for the annual visa program was set at 66,000 workers, and it was reached in January, shutting out all but four of 13 crab houses that applied for the visas, as well as a handful of watermen, an oyster processor, a canning company and a fish processor.

Despite their frustration, the owners say they will not turn to an obvious alternative work force.

"I'm not going to hire illegals," Mr. Hall says. "It's against the law."

Lately, he's not feeling as if the law loves him back.

"We're being punished for doing everything legal," he says. "This program is a win-win situation; the workers pay taxes, the government knows who they are, and they get checked at the border."

Sounds like the type of sensible guest worker program President Bush is proposing. If ever there was a good example of Mr. Bush's mantra of "willing workers for willing employers," the Eastern Shore is it. In 1997, just 17 Eastern Shore companies applied for the visas; this year, 333 did, including many landscape companies. Statewide, 9,300 applications were filed.

Local residents initially resented the Mexicans, says Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, but over time, "people realized they were the backbone of the business."

The few American crab pickers left, mostly elderly black women, are dying off. Maryland's $25 million crab processing business may eventually suffer the same fate, as competition from processors overseas bites into their bottom line. About a decade ago, 50 crab processing plants operated on the shore; today, 24 remain. The owners say they can't afford to raise the pay scale to attract American workers, not with foreign importers paying their pickers $3 to $4 a day and with a year-round supply of crabs that they ship to the United States at lower prices.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has proposed legislation to temporarily exempt from the cap workers who held seasonal jobs in the past. She ultimately wants Congress to raise the cap.

Meanwhile, anxious employers and workers wait on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border - a border that is becoming increasingly meaningless in a global economy - doing the math, not doing any work, and concluding there is truth to the old axiom that time is money.

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