Industries in North Carolina and across the country that rely on importing seasonal workers – and the foreign workers themselves – are in a bind because the federal government has temporarily stopped processing visa requests for these workers.
The government suspended processing H-2B visa requests after a federal court in Florida ruled March 4 that the U.S. Department of Labor lacked the authority to issue regulations for the program. The H-2B program is for unskilled, nonagricultural workers and is capped at 66,000 foreign workers per year.
The state’s two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, are among a bipartisan group of more than 20 senators who complained in a letter that halting the application process “has already caused economic damage and panic among businesses that depend on the H-2B program.”
The letter states that the court ruling didn’t require shutting down the program and urges the federal agencies that administer it, the Labor Department and Homeland Security, to “immediately resume accepting and processing” H-2B visa applications. The senators also wrote that they are “exploring legislative options to ensure that this happens.”
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Immediately is essential for North Carolina’s seafood industry, which is anticipating the beginning of crab fishing season in April.
Mattamuskeet Seafood, a seafood processor in Hyde County, has applied to hire 80 foreign workers to cut the crabs open and extract the meat. But its application is being held in abeyance given the current situation.
“It’s like being dead in the water,” said Sherrie Carawan, whose family has owned Mattamuskeet for 31 years.
“I don’t even know what to say to you. I’m so upset about it,” Carawan said. “It’s devastating for us.”
Robert White, the owner of Frog Island Seafood, a seafood wholesaler and processor based on the Outer Banks, tells a similar story: The company’s application for about 25 crab pickers is in limbo.
“We definitely will have a problem if we do not have any help,” White said.
He added that efforts to recruit local workers typically have failed.
“None of the local help will do it ... period,” he said.
Both White and Carawan stressed that the impact won’t be limited just to their businesses. Rather, it will extend up and down the food chain, from the fishing boats that supply the crabs to the supermarkets that sell them once they’ve been processed.
“Those 25 ladies take care of 200 people directly,” said White. “Indirectly, I don’t know how many.”
Other seasonal employers also could be hurt.
The senators’ letter stated that “the H-2B program is a necessity for businesses across the country such as seafood, hospitality, tourism, forestry and other seasonal industries.”
In a statement Monday, Tillis said the decision to end the program “will unfairly hurt small businesses, something North Carolina cannot afford.”
Seasonal workers in foreign countries who were anticipating being able to come to North Carolina and other states to work also are being left in the lurch, said Clermont Ripley, a migrant worker attorney with the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center.
“They were counting on this income,” she said.
On the other hand, Ripley said, the situation could benefit U.S. workers if companies end up raising their wages and improving their working conditions in order to attract the people they need.
On the other hand, companies that rely on seasonal workers typically contend they can’t afford to pay more than they already do. Before this month’s court ruling, the hourly rates they paid were regulated by the Labor Department based on the “prevailing” wage for a specific location.
Susan Pentz, who co-owns the 18-room Harborside Motel on Ocracoke Island along with her husband, has brought in two housekeepers each tourist season for at least the last 15 years.
Pentz initially was dismayed when she was notified about the suspension of the H-2B program from the company that help her with H-2B applications. But she was relieved when she further read that, because the hotel’s applications already had been approved, her housekeepers should still be forthcoming.
Still, she said, “it’s devastating to the businesses that aren’t going to get their people.”