CAMBRIDGE – At J.M. Clayton’s crab packing house in Cambridge, more than 100 workers spend the day unloading, picking, stacking and then packing the sweet crab meat that Maryland is famous for.
Maryland’s crab industry is struggling. If it’s not unexpected hurricanes or other problems brought on by nature then it’s competition from foreign markets.
And now there’s a new hurdle for small businesses like Clayton’s which use foreign workers with H2B visas. Those visas are required for companies hiring seasonal guest workers, and 80 of Clayton’s employees hold them.
The U.S. Labor Department recently implemented a new rule for H2B visa workers that would raise their hourly wage by about $2 an hour.
Maryland’s minimum wage is $7.25, and the new wages would require Clayton’s company to pay them around $9 or $10 per hour. Clayton’s owner Jack Brooks said the cost of complying with the new regulation nearly shut down his operation altogether.
A last minute appeal by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md) resulted in a 60-day delay in the implementation of the regulation. A spokesman for the senator said she hopes to continue to defer the pay hike for at least a year until the issue can be resolved.
Clayton’s owner Jack Brooks said the delay came as a huge sigh of relief. “We gotta feel good about that, it’s the only thing that keeps me getting up in the morning,” said Brooks.
American University Professor Jayesh Rathod, who worked as lawyer for CASA de Maryland representing immigrants, said workers often don’t have a say in the matter. In many cases, workers have trouble paying for housing, food, and other expenses, but are afraid to speak up to their bosses for fear of losing their work visas, he said.
For now, Clayton’s said it will be able to finish out the rest of the season until both sides can reach an agreement.
On the Eastern Shore, they say crabs picked the old-fashioned way will never go of style. “It comes back to the handpicking, that’s where you get quality,” said Bill Seiling of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association. “There’s no machine that can teach you that skill.”