Richard Gollott first started having trouble finding American oyster shuckers in the 1970s. A third-generation oyster processor, Gollott had watched his father and grandfather easily hire young Americans, at least for a few seasons before they headed to college or another career. But by the 1960s, when Gollott assumed control of his own facility, it was all retired fishermen who sat at the stools, methodically hammering open shells and slicing out meat during the long, early morning shifts.
Then those fishermen began aging out, and Gollott could find no Americans, young or old, to take the jobs. “As the population got older, their kids weren’t interested,” he says. “My generation just wasn’t that interested.”
Ultimately, it was Vietnamese refugees, he says, who saved his business. Thousands who had fled their country after the fall of Saigon were settling along the Louisiana coast in the mid 1970s, and many took up processing work. Seeing this, Gollott began driving some of them from New Orleans to his plant in Biloxi, Mississippi, on the weekends. Later he helped many resettle along the Mississippi coast, where a generation filled the region’s seafood processing plants.
“Now history is repeating itself,” says Gollott, who owns and runs Golden Gulf Coast Packing Company. “Their children are really not interested in the seafood business.”
They play a very significant part in our industry and have for the past 10 or 15 years.
In 1984, Gollott switched to processing shrimp, in part to take advantage of some mechanized labor. But he still needs workers, and Americans today seem no more interested in the tedious job of de-heading shrimp than they were in cutting open bivalves. Once, desperate for help, Gollott arranged to hire prisoners, but the inmates quickly showed a preference for jail over seafood processing work and the experiment ended within the year.
Without other options, Gollott now relies on the H-2B visa program to hire non-immigrant, seasonal foreign labor. “They play a very significant part in our industry and have for the past 10 or 15 years,” says Gollott, who also serves on the state’s Commission for Marine Resources. “If we don’t get them, it really throws a crimp in us around here. We can’t get local people.”
In 2017, however, Gollott didn’t get his 15 to 18 H-2B workers, after Congress failed to exempt returning workers from the visa cap. That put the maximum number of visas issued for the year at just 66,000, with employers from every non-farm industry in the country vying for the temporary help. Gollott managed to remain open, thanks to some of those Vietnamese refugees, who do the skilled work of de-heading shrimp and can make as much as $50 per hour working peace meal. But he has had to scale back production, which affects pay for his other workers. He has 30 local employees, most of whom are U.S.-born workers who drive equipment, pack shrimp, and handle office duties. But without the extra line workers, there’s less shrimp processed and, as a result, less work for everyone.
“Usually in the middle of a season we work 18 hours a day. Our people get a lot of overtime,” he says. “If we can’t get the product through the plant, it will just cut everything back. It’ll hurt the Americans that we’ve got working here because we won’t be able to work as much.”
The decrease in production will also hurt his suppliers — additional American workers and their families. “It’s going to affect everything: The number of boxes we buy, the packing material, the gasses that we use to freeze the shrimp,” he says. And U.S. processors can’t simply raise prices to compensate for reduced supply, because they’re competing with cheap, imported seafood in the grocery stores. “We’re capped at what we can charge,” Gollott says. “We’re competing with slave labor.”
“I’m worried,” says Gollott, who has spent his entire life in the seafood business. “We’re probably big enough and strong enough to survive a year or two, but long term I’m not going to do it.”