by Gordon Curry, Louisiana Seafood News
Many, if not most, of the seafood processors in Louisiana depend on foreign guest workers to help operate their businesses and meet demand for their products.
Louisiana’s crab fishery, oyster fishery, shrimp fishery – and even its alligator farms – rely on those who will travel to and work in the United States by way of an H-2B visa. Each visa is a one-time pass to fill a seasonal job vacancy that cannot be filled by an American worker
A variety of Louisiana industries brought in more than 3,000 H-2B workers in 2011.
Gary Bauer, owner of Pontchartrain Blue Crab, says his business wouldn’t survive without these workers. That’s because, according to Bauer, it’s hard finding local people willing to do this kind of demanding work, such as standing for hours picking crabmeat or peeling shrimp.
Though the program has worked well for years, there’s growing concern among Louisiana business owners over new regulations established by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) since January 2011.
What It All Means Today
The new rules, which are in various stages of delay, include hundreds of pages of complicated guidelines employers must follow to qualify, as well as a new method of calculating wages that sharply increases what employers will pay
Among some of the most burdensome rules, businesses will have to:
- Pay workers’ transportation and subsistence costs to and from the workplace.
- Guarantee 75 percent of workers’ full-time pay, even if there is no work to perform due to unforeseen circumstances.
- Use a new wage calculation methodology that would result in an average wage increase of 32 percent across all Louisiana industries using H-2B workers.
Taken together, many believe these regulations stand to cripple Louisiana’s seafood industry, driving some out of business and further reducing overall economic activity in the region.
“It’s unfair to employers who need seasonal workers to have a significantly higher wage increase imposed on them,” says Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain. “What business could absorb a 32-percent wage increase at the stroke of a pen?”
Strain says the national guest worker policy must be revamped. “Employers across the nation who use H-2B labor demand a streamlined process that will allow producers to pay foreign guest workers a fair wage to fill job vacancies that aren’t being taken by American workers.”
Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and owner of Harlon’s LA Fish and Seafood, organized a recent visit by congressional staffers from five Gulf States to see the industry firsthand.
“Nobody has ever taken them by the hand to show them what we do. Nobody has ever explained to them how the H-2B workers really work for us and their importance to our industry,” said Pearce.
Pearce believes that with a clear understanding of how integral H-2B workers are to the seafood industry, Congress will see why the new DOL regulations are harmful to business and could deliver a death blow to those already suffering from a downturned economy.
He will be in Washington with a delegation this week to discuss this and other issues, including the damage done by Hurricane Isaac and what the needs might be for disaster aid.
Creating a System that Works for All
There are those who oppose the H-2B program in its entirety because they believe employers that use it take advantage of guest workers – through low pay and poor labor conditions – to fatten their pocketbooks.
Edward Hayes, an attorney working for Leake & Andersson who has helped take up the plight of seafood processors, points out that many of these businesses are owned and run by multi-generational families.
“These families would like nothing more than to employ American workers, but find it hard to do. No one understands more the value of American jobs than these guys.”
He goes on to say these businesses have relied on seasonal workers for many years, and many of these workers are now second-generation. He believes they keep returning because they’re paid fairly, provided with decent accommodations and generally treated well.
As it stands now, “businesses get the labor they need and the workers make a decent wage – a win for all.”