by Gordon Curry/Louisiana Seafood News
Gary Bauer and his crew at Pontchartrain Blue Crab started back to work last Friday after missing about 10 days of business because of Hurricane Isaac.
Located on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell, La., Bauer’s 98 employees – 74 of whom are H-2B visa workers – process live catches of crab and sometimes shrimp, delivering half a million pounds of product a year.
“On Friday, before Isaac hit, we saw we were in the path of the storm,” says Bauer. “Our inventory at water’s edge was too heavy, so I decided to truck it to public cold storage, further inland, away from the storm surge.”
Preparing for the Storm
On Saturday Bauer heard the storm was tracking toward Florida. But he had a gut feeling it was coming his way, so he brought his crew back in Sunday to start making preparations.
“On Monday we started loading up trucks and trailers with more product and equipment to move it out of harm’s way.” He also bought food supplies for his visa workers and arranged accommodations for them in a nearby motel.
By Tuesday, Bauer had moved his last forklift off the property and had transported 60 pallets of product to cold storage. “We made sure everybody was safe and finally got everything squared away before the storm hit.”
Employees were back on site Saturday, four days after Isaac made landfall, reassembling dismantled equipment and repairing damage to the docks. After completing repairs, it was just a matter of waiting for the fishermen to starting bringing in their hauls again.
Need for Outside Help
Bauer has owned and operated Pontchartrain Blue Crab since 1996, and has relied on the help of migrant – or H-2B – workers for the last 13 years. The H-2B program permits U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for temporary nonagricultural services or labor on a one-time, seasonal, peak-load or intermittent basis
He says that without these workers, his business wouldn’t survive. That’s because, according to Bauer, it’s hard finding local people willing to do this kind of demanding work, which involves standing for hours picking crabmeat or peeling shrimp.
And he wonders if he will qualify for the workers he needs in future years because the program’s rules have become increasingly complicated and restrictive.
“If I had complete confidence that I could get the people I need year after year, I’d be expanding my business. There’s a lot of potential growth.”
New Labor Regs Pose Problems
Bauer says new regulations by the U.S. Department of Laborwould make guest-worker labor costs prohibitively expensive and pose economic difficulties for all connected to the Louisiana seafood industry – from fisherman to processors to retailers and consumers.
Though temporarily delayed from implementation, there also is a provision in the H-2B program that guarantees wages to migrant workers for 75 percent of the work days in each 12-week period of the job order – even if there’s no work to perform.
That means, for example, when a hurricane or some other disaster occurs and halts business, owners such as Bauer will not only miss revenue from lost production, but also might have to pay wages for missed work.
Bauer is glad to be back in business, but notes he will not be able to make up for the 20,000 pounds of production he lost because of Hurricane Isaac. And that loss has reverberations up and down the seafood supply chain.