WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday accepted a measure that could help ease the shortage of immigrant workers on the Eastern Shore, by relaxing the cap on the number of H2B visa workers allowed in the country.
Senators voted 94-6 to include the measure, introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., as an amendment to an $80.6 billion emergency supplemental appropriations bill for military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The H2B visa allows seasonal, non-agricultural workers to come into this country, but the number of visas is capped at 66,000, a cap that was reached this year on Jan. 3.
Mikulski’s proposal would relax the limit for the next two years, by not counting workers who have entered the country under the H2B visa within the past three years toward the cap. Mikulski said long-term reform is still needed, but her temporary solution is needed immediately.
“We’ll take what we can get and hope that the Congress speeds up the process,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association. “If it doesn’t get done this summer, they’ll be out of business.”
Summertime industries like seafood processing and resort businesses have been hit particularly hard by H2B rules that make employers wait until 120 days before the start of their season before applying for the workers. But for the past two years, the visa cap was already reached by the time many of those businesses could apply.
Unless the law changes, some businesses on the Eastern Shore “may have to miss out on this season just because they won’t have the employees,” said Phillips Seafood Restaurants spokesman Sean Bryan.
That could lead to the loss of local jobs, not just immigrant jobs, if businesses have to shut down, Bryan said. Besides production work, those on the administrative side of the business would be unaffordable as well.
Phillips made out better than last year, Bryan said, because some of its restaurants opened earlier than usual, enabling them to apply for workers before the cap was reached. An early opening on Valentine’s Day and an early Easter helped them beat the rush.
But he said Phillips processing operations will be strapped without the relaxation on the cap. It will probably have to pull workers from elsewhere in the company and pay them extra to pick crab meat.
“It would hurt our operation because we wouldn’t have the skill. That’s where we started out with the H2B program . . . a lack of experience would cause some problems,” he said.
But Cambridge-area picking houses will be much worse off, Bryan said, because they will not have the labor pool to draw from that Phillips does.
“A lot of the workers they used to depend on have either gotten too old, and the younger generation just doesn’t want to that kind of work anymore,” he said.
Simns said seafood processors have been on Capitol Hill lobbying for the measure for months. “People that never go to D.C. lobbying means it’s an important issue. They don’t want to be in D.C., let alone lobbying,” Simns said.
He said Eastern Shore industries are “hoping and praying” that the measure passes. Workers are waiting for the word to come back into the country, and employers are waiting to see if they will be in business this summer.
The Senate is expected to take up the Iraq-Afghanistan measure again Wednesday, with Mikulski’s amendment attached. Senate leaders said a final vote could come this week, before passing the amended measure back to the House.
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