Reporting Alex DeMetrick
BALTIMORE (WJZ)–Maryland’s crab packing houses were due to close next week, rather than meet federal orders to increase the wages of foreign workers. It was a plan to make those jobs more attractive to Americans. But as Alex DeMetrick reports, a delay on the pay boost has saved the busiest part of the crabbing season.
For Jack Brooks, this is the height of the crab season on the Chesapeake.
But a Department of Labor order forcing Maryland’s seafood industry to boost wages for foreign workers with temporary visas was forcing Brooks to shut down next week.
“A 27 percent increase in our wages would have taken our cost for crab meat up to $1.70 a pound,” said Brooks, J.M. Clayton Seafood.
Which would make Maryland crabs too expensive for Brooks’ customers, and cheaper imported crab even more competitive than it already is.
So Brooks was set to let his workers go, until word that Senator Barbara Mikulski had convinced the Labor Department to delay the wage hike for 60 days.
“What that’ll do is put it to Nov. 30 or Dec. 1, which is wonderful news because we certainly needed that breathing room,” Brooks said.
More than temporary foreign workers were facing unemployment. People who drive delivery trucks and supply fuel and the products that crabbing needs were also at risk and worried.
“It’s gonna hurt everyone. It’s a no-win situation,” said Louie Frase, seafood truck driver.
“I’ve never drawn unemployment a day in my life, and I pray and hope to God I don’t have to now, but it’s a real reality,” said Scott Poland, seafood driver.
By forcing higher wages, the Labor Department hopes to place more Americans in these jobs, but very few take on the work, in part because it is only seasonal. And for watermen, it’s crucial. Without the houses, there’s no market for their catch.
“Exactly. It just helps us out all the way around,” said Frank Windsor, waterman.
And now at least this season can finish. A delay in the wage hike now gives Maryland’s congressional delegation, along with those from Virginia and the Carolinas, time to craft new legislation with the Labor Department.