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Senate Delays Action to Help Foreign Workers

Friday - 4/15/2005, 6:44am  ET

By ELIZABETH A. WEISS
Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday delayed action on a measure that would help the Maryland's seafood processors hire much-needed foreign laborers as pickers and shuckers by relaxing limits on certain work visas.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., offered a plan to remedy the shortage of seasonal non-agricultural workers who are here on H2B visas, which are currently capped at 66,000 nationwide. The cap hits seafood processors particularly hard, since they often rely on immigrant workers.

"They could go out of business," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association of the processors. "There's nobody else to do that job. People have died off that used to do it."

Under Mikulski's plan -- which was offered as an amendment to the $80 billion emergency supplemental appropriations bill for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan -- workers who have entered the country on an H2B visa within the last three years would not be counted toward the cap. The change would only last for two years.

"I know we need comprehensive reform," Mikulski said Wednesday during debate in the Senate. But she stressed the need for action now, before the summer begins, so the industries that are currently understaffed "can survive."

Mikulski had hoped the amendment would get through the Senate this week, but an aide said leadership "did not give a commitment that her amendment would get a vote" as the Senate wrangles over the supplemental budget bill. So Mikulski cut off debate on her own amendment, a move that is expected to force the question on Monday.

Mikulski in February introduced a bill to do the same thing, the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2005. Businesses pleaded for the relief after the H2B cap was reached on Jan. 3, leaving many industries, particularly those that needed workers in the late spring and summer, short the number of workers they need.

Industries cannot put in requests for H2B workers until 120 days before the start of their season, which puts summer businesses like seafood processors at a disadvantage.

"H2Bs are a problem," said Chris Foster, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "When they reach the cap, they shut down. . . . That's a significant impact predominantly on the Eastern Shore."

Foster said with the "very, very seasonal economy" on the Eastern Shore, the unemployment rate can range from 4 percent to 10 percent during the year, but during the summer months it's at zero, and there is a worker shortage.

Sandy Sharp with the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce said that without enough H2B workers the resort town "is going to be hurting" from a business point of view.

The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said 9,384 H2B workers came into the state in 2004. About one-third of those workers were landscapers, and 1,360 were in construction.

Just 948 visa holders worked processing crabmeat, shucking oysters or doing other seafood jobs. The true number of needed workers is hard to quantify, Foster said, because the cap is reached before all of the businesses can apply.

Simns said that picking and shucking is not minimum wage work, and "you can make a good living doing that if you're good with your hands." But processors still need help getting workers, he said.

"The ladies that used to it got better jobs in offices and stuff," he said. "There's nobody to take their place. . . If we can't get them back they're going to be in bad trouble."

(Copyright 2005 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)