Seafood industry visa fix collides with coronavirus, leaves great uncertainty

WASHINGTON (May 2, 2020)—With the aid of lawmakers, seafood businesses in Maryland, Virginia, Alaska and North Carolina last month won federal approval of an additional 35,000 visas for non-immigrant workers, but the timing couldn't have been worse.

Within days, the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down businesses, including restaurants and retail outlets the seafood industry supplies.

Some seafood operations let employees go, while others have hired fewer people than they would in a more typical season.

John Martin, owner of the Martin Fish Co. in Ocean City, Maryland, told Capital News Service that a large percentage of the firm's business is in the retail sector, including market and restaurant sales. Due to the virus, Martin Fish has been unable to open its retail store.

"We are now in the process of figuring out how to open with the safety of our workers and our customers in mind," Martin said. "Currently, we have had to lay off a significant number of employees that are directly relating to those end-user groups."

He added that this has been a lesson for his company: within weeks a global issue can affect the world food markets and he needs to be more prepared for that in the future.

Jack Brooks, president of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge, Maryland, explained that the seafood industry is a seasonal business and the coronavirus has hit the hardest during the industry's prime time.

"We were planning on hiring between 65 to 70 workers for the season, but now that the markets have gone down we hired about 25 people," Brooks said in an interview with CNS. "We sell our seafood to restaurants and with the restaurants being closed that has really hurt our business. We are taking this pandemic really seriously and are hoping that by next year we will be able to recover from the hard hits we have taken."

The $2 trillion coronavirus aid package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last month includes $300 million for the nation's fisheries industry.

The Maryland congressional delegation sent a letter on April 13 to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Chris Owen, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, requesting that the aid include companies that process fish products for restaurants and grocery stores.

Fishing and processing seafood is a more than $600 million industry in Maryland.

"A new economic analysis found that Maryland's oyster aquaculture operations contribute an average of $9 million per year to the state economy and have grown by nearly 25 percent annually since 2012," the lawmakers wrote. "However, that growth, as well as the mostly small and family-owned businesses that comprise Maryland's seafood industry, is threatened due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic."

Whenever the seafood industry can go back to relatively normal operations, company officials say the long-term labor problems will remain, despite the visa relief given just before the pandemic struck.

Foreign seasonal workers come to work for the seafood industry each year with the help of the H-2B visas. Such workers are high in demand as these companies would not survive without them.

A study conducted by Maryland's Best Seafood found that without the additional H-2B visas released each year, seafood processors would lose close to $49 million in sales. Maryland would lose 914 to 1,367 jobs and the overall hit to the state's economy could reach $150 million.

A letter to the Department of Homeland Security signed by seven senators, including Maryland Democrats Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, called the visas a "critical matter."

"Local seafood businesses earn their livelihoods based on perishable products and need H-2B workers to harvest and process their respective seafood products so they can sell those products," the senators wrote. "If these local businesses lose a customer base one year, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to come back into the industry."

"The DHS grants a maximum of 66,000 visas to foreign nationals each year through the H-2B visa program, which is operated like a lottery," the lawmakers said. "The workers are spread half-and-half to assist non-agricultural companies across the country between the first and second periods of the year."

If companies don't win workers through the lottery, they could be forced to stop business operations unless the DHS grants more visas for seasonal workers to shuck oysters, process crabs and harvest salmon.

Maryland Delegate Chris Adams, R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot & Wicomico, said last month he still had concerns over the recurring shortages of seasonal workers in the industry, which he called "gut-wrenching."

Van Hollen responded to Adams's concerns, saying he realized "it's hard when it seems like we're doing this on a short-term basis rather than having a long-term solution."

Van Hollen, Cardin and Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, said they are working together to find this permanent fix.

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