Mikulski helps crab-picking firms retain work force

September 30, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN REPORTER

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has worked out an agreement in Congress that would allow foreign workers to return to jobs in Chesapeake Bay crab processing plants next season - a compromise that industry leaders say is crucial to maintaining their work force and their economic survival.

In an 11th-hour move, Mikulski was able to include language in a Department of Defense authorization bill that lawmakers are expected to approve before they adjourn this weekend.

"This is huge for us, just huge," said Jack Brooks, whose family owns J. M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, the Eastern Shore's oldest crab-picking house. "We were hoping for a longer extension, but at least this way, we'd get all our workers back next spring. We've spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill."

The arrangement, Mikulski says, would extend for one year special provisions in a temporary work visa program known as H2B, for its citation in the law. The 16-year-old program has provided temporary visas for workers who fill jobs for seafood processors, landscapers and other businesses with work that most American shun.

Last spring, when a national quota of 66,000 H2B visas was filled early, Mikulski won Congressional approval for a "Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act," which allowed workers who have previously filled jobs in the program - including hundreds who worked in Maryland crab houses - to return.

This time, Mikulski and industry leaders had hoped to secure a two-year extension of the program, which has continued to draw fire in the national debate on immigration reform. She was able to get one year.

"Without these seasonal workers, many businesses would not survive or would be forced to limit services, lay off permanent U.S. workers or - worse yet - close their doors," Mikulski said in a statement released yesterday.

Under the new agreement, seasonal employers will be allowed to rehire foreign workers who participated in the H2B program in 2004, 2005 or 2006, regardless of whether the annual national quota of 66,000 workers is filled. But the extension applies only to seasonal workers hired next year.

"Being able to get back our own workers, people who've been with us before, is also key for us," said Brooks. "Picking crab meat is not an easy job. If we're going to produce a consistent product, we need a consistent work force."

Maryland crab processors, who say they cannot find U.S. citizens willing to take the job of picking steamed crab meat, have joined forces with landscapers, resort hotel operators and other businesses that employ temporary workers.

"It's a matter of crossing your fingers when you get to Washington and you're not sure how things are going to go," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

Last year, seafood processors were unable to hire workers until early June, when Mikulski managed to include the visa extension in an Iraq war spending bill. The delay turned out to be in the processors' favor when cold spring weather delayed the crab season.

"We got one more year; that's the important thing," Hooper Island processor Curtis Simmons said yesterday. "It's better than not getting anything from Washington. We'll have to see how it goes next time."

Seasonal employers worried that with off-year elections set to take place next month, Congress would adjourn without extending the H2B program. They spent a day in Washington visiting lawmakers.

"In the last couple years, it's been chaos for seasonal business people," Sieling said. "You just need some stability, no matter what industry it is. It's hard to make decisions long term. It's hard to get by with total uncertainty like this."


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