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Trump Policy Leads To Worker Shortage In Crab Industry


If you've suffered to a drab, dreary winter, as many of us have, then you are probably looking forward to summer, and even better, the food of summer - fresh corn, fresh melons, fresh tomatoes, and here on the East Coast, blue crab. But this year in the mid-Atlantic, a labor shortage could drive up prices and even shut down some suppliers. For the last two decades, seasonal workers, mostly from Mexico, have come to Maryland each spring to pick the crab meat. They were able to do that because of visas that were awarded on a first-come-first-serve basis. But this year, the Trump administration awarded guest worker visas by a lottery system, and many of the people who've worked in the crab houses for decades haven't been able to get one. We wanted to hear how this is affecting the industry, so we called Harry Phillips. He owns Russell Hall seafood. He's in Hooper's Island. Mr. Phillips, thanks so much for talking to us.

HARRY PHILLIPS: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: What's a normal business season look like for you? How many guest workers usually come and work with you?

PHILLIPS: Well, we have 50 visas every year and probably 42 of those are crab pickers and we have a couple of guys that help us on the docks, unload crabs and steam the crabs. But without these workers, we are literally out of business as far as doing any business with crab meat. We tried everything to hire Americans, advertising right now, as we speak, in the papers and not a single person has applied. So a lot of people are going to be touched by this as far as being out of work or receiving a lesser income. It's kind of like a domino effect. It just trickles all through the community - the stores, the railway. So many many hundreds of people are going to be affected without these crab pickers.

MARTIN: What's been the response so far? You haven't been able to hire a single person is what you're telling me. You haven't been able to hire a single picker for this coming season?

PHILLIPS: No, I haven't. They're not here anymore. It's a dying breed because you don't just put a crab knife in your hand and pick crabs to sell crab meat. These girls have experience. They are skilled, and they do an excellent job. Maryland is known to have the best crab meat in the United States, and it's a tradition, and it should continue, but it's not going to continue if this keeps happening because seem like ever year, for the last few years, some of the places are dwindling down, closing up. Because we've fought this battle for 20 years, every spring, we don't know if we're going to get our workers or not. But in the past, we have gotten them. We've been very lucky and everybody's gotten their workers.

MARTIN: Well, some would argue that if, well, if you were to raise your wages then maybe you would get Americans to do the work. Have you thought about that?

PHILLIPS: We're paying over minimum wage now. And once these girls - they got two weeks to train and after two weeks, they surpass the minimum wage price of the United States and start getting paid by piecework. They get paid by the pound - $3.25 a pound. Some of these girls pick 40, 50 pounds of crab meat a day. That's pretty good money.

MARTIN: Well, what's going to happen - forgive me for asking worst-case scenario - if you can't get any workers to come, what do you do?

PHILLIPS: We don't do anything. I mean, we'll lose our customers. Because some people did get their workers, about half of us got them and half of us didn't, of the packing plants in Maryland. And no doubt, restaurants want Maryland crab meat. They don't want the Venezuelan crab meat, which is shipped in here. So they really want to have the Maryland, and they are going to try to get it wherever they can get it because that's what people want. They want Maryland crab meat.

MARTIN: Well, Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland said that - on Thursday that the immigration officials have said that they will approve 15,000 new guest worker visas. Have you heard that?

PHILLIPS: Yes, I have heard that. But here's the hang up. They're going to do a lottery. Do you know how many tens of thousands of businesses never got their workers due to the lottery? It's not just the seafood industry. It goes across the United States, you know, people who pick apples, who pick peaches, who pick strawberries. Migrant workers do it because the American people aren't going to do it again. But crab meat, in second - oysters, you cannot find anybody, any American that will shuck or pick crab meat.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this? And forgive me because it's personal question. It seems as though this is an area that, since I drive to the shore - I come out to the shore in the summer, I see a lot of Trump signs. So the impression I got was this is an area that was very pro-Trump. I'm wondering if you anticipated this. I don't - I'm not going to ask you who you voted for unless you want to tell me. But, I wonder if the people in the area who supported the president thought about what the impact might be on them and their businesses and has that given them anything any new thoughts about all this.

PHILLIPS: Well, I don't mind telling you who voted for because it's not a secret. I voted for Trump because I thought he could do a decent job, and I wasn't alone. 89 percent of the people in this district voted for Donald Trump. So how do you think all these people are feeling about President Trump after we supported him, counted on him, and for the last 25 years, whether it be one party or the other, we've gotten our workers? I do not understand. President Trump uses H-2B workers in his resorts, and I'm sure he got his. But here we are, empty handed, out of work, and there are many, many unhappy people with the party right now.

MARTIN: That was Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood. We reached him at Hooper's Island at his business. Mr. Phillips, thanks so much for talking with us.

PHILLIPS: OK, and thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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