It was late May, six weeks after Gary Bauer was scheduled to start processing blue crab at his Louisiana plant, and the 58-year-old seafood processor was scrambling to figure out how he was going to stay in business. It was a struggle with wide implications. The livelihood of both his family and his 21 full-time American employees depended on it.
The problem wasn’t with the crab harvest. The blue-crab catch in nearby Lake Pontchartrain and Mississippi River’s east side is showing up as planned. Nor was the problem a lack of demand. Retailers are eager to buy the domestic, wild crab meat, an increasingly popular choice among American consumers concerned about the safety and provenance of imported and farmed seafood.
No, Bauer’s problem involved the one area in the volatile business of fresh seafood where he should have control: Labor. For the first time in Pontchartrain Blue Crab’s 17 years, Bauer did not receive the U.S. government visas he needs to hire crab pickers.
“This could end my business,” Bauer says. “No one’s ever developed a machine that can pick the crab meat from the crab. The only way you can process crab meat is to have pickers: People willing to stand there for 10, 12 hours a day picking crab meat out of cooked crabs.”
With few to no Americans interested in the job, Bauer and other processors have for decades turned to the H-2B visa program to legally hire foreign, non-immigrant, seasonal labor. Bauer’s workers — all of whom come from Mexico — stand or sit at long metal tables, their rubber-gloved hands slicing crab shells and separating small chunks of meat with speed and alacrity. They earn $10 to $12 per hour. At the end of the nine-month season, they return home.
Bauer praises the government visa program for providing the skilled workforce that American companies need if they are to continue to process seafood on U.S. shores. But as the program stands today, it is effectively shutting out many seafood processors, leaving them nowhere to turn for legal labor in the current marketplace.
The U.S. government issues 66,000 H-2B visas a year, distributing 33,000 apiece in the spring and the fall. Because the H-2B is the only guest-worker visa for all non-agricultural jobs, hundreds of landscaping companies, ski resorts, hotels, construction companies, and others compete for the limited number of visas. With the U.S. economy now at full employment, the extra seasonal workers are in especially steep demand.
Processors like Bauer face an added obstacle. Because program rules prohibit employers from applying for visas more than 90 days before the work start date, the timing of the crab harvest — which typically begins in late spring— puts those processors at the end of the line for visas designated for April 1 through September 30. “A lot of people moved their date of need up, realizing what was going to happen,” he says. Bauer applied for 96 workers, using his actual, April 15, start date, and didn’t make the cut.
Now his plant is ominously silent. “In the seafood business, if you miss a day’s production in crabs, you will never make that lost day up,” he says. “My business is dying a death of a thousand cuts.”
We’re going to lose a traditional way of life that is the fabric of our Louisiana heritage.
Bauer received H-2B visas for 88 workers in 2016 and 2015. But Congress had provided an exemption for returning workers, meaning those who worked for Bauer in any of the previous three years could return without counting toward the annual visa cap. About 90 percent of Bauer’s workers return each year. Most have been with him for a decade or more. But Congress did not renew the returning worker exemption for 2017. And while the House did later add a budget provision giving the federal government the option to increase the number of H-2B visas for 2017, processors were still waiting to see if officials would actually issue any more.
“I was told that I could just wait for the next round of visas, but this is a seasonal business,” says Bauer, who is spending more than $20,000 a month on overhead and payroll while he waits. “My buyers are telling me: We have to make a decision in the next few weeks whether we are going to stay with you.”
Bauer would happily hire local, American workers. But in 17 years of advertising the jobs — a requirement of the visa that also mandates he offer a job to any qualified American applicant — he has gained not a single U.S.-born crab picker. “Americans show no interest in processing crab meat,” he says.
The job is repetitive, tough on the hands, and pays $10 per hour, more for skilled, fast pickers paid by output. Raising wages could help attract more American workers, says Bauer. But the market gives him little room. He already has to sell his jumbo blue crab to retailers for $18 to $21 per pound to make a profit. “That’s about the limit of what the market can bear,” he says. Meanwhile, imports such as Venezuelan crab meat sell for as little as $12 to $13 per pound.
American buyers may be willing to pay more for locally produced seafood, but only up to a point. “We know. We’ve found that ceiling,” he says. “Any increase in cost — and I’m already higher than the cost of my competition, which is all the imports — and I’m going to lose market. It serves no one any good to produce crab meat that’s too expensive to sell.”
If Bauer doesn’t get the labor he needs soon, the impact on his business — and on the local seafood industry more broadly — could be profound. His mom-and-pop shop could collapse and his American workers be out their jobs. What’s more, Louisiana commercial fishing operations, which sell him about $5 million worth of crab each season, risk losing valuable sales. Fewer local processors means fewer buyers. And as crabbers compete to sell their product, their own prices will invariably drop. Finally, if processors continue to close, the availability of domestically produced crab “could cease to exist,” Bauer says. “Customers who currently prefer domestic crab meat will have no choice but to replace our brand with imported product from the likes of China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and more.”
“People who are willing to come process crab and stand by that table all day are extremely important to Louisiana,” he says. “It’s not just that we’re going to lose American jobs and lose production. We’re going to lose a traditional way of life that is the fabric of our Louisiana heritage.”