Maryland crab industry counts on Mexican workers, but how will they stay safe?


Well-known member
Dec 12, 2018
APR 23, 2020

Desperate for jobs, Mexican crab pickers have slowly begun arriving on the Eastern Shore, where employers are eager for their services but wary of the grave challenges posed by the coronavirus in a business in which workers typically live and labor in close quarters.

This year’s crabbing season is fraught with difficult choices for the workers, who are nearly all women, as well as for an industry relying heavily on foreign labor to pick crabmeat for sale in grocery stores and restaurants. The season began April 1, although many Marylanders don’t indulge until Memorial Day weekend.

Crab processing plants — many of them clustered on secluded Hoopers Island in Dorchester County — say they are taking unprecedented steps. They’re cutting the size of shift crews to maximize spacing, monitoring workers’ temperatures and reserving housing in case it’s needed for quarantines.

“We hold our breath every day and hope that all these precautions work,” said Jack Brooks, one of the owners of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge and president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned for them,” said sales manager Aubrey Vincent of Lindy’s Seafood on Hoopers Island, which is still waiting for U.S. government approval to get its 85 requested workers. “What we’ll probably do is half-sized shifts, so that you’ve got more space in between.”

Laborers — some on the Eastern Shore and others still waiting to travel from Mexico — are concerned, too.

Martha Olivares Garcia, 64, who has been a guest worker for nearly 30 years, is back home in Veracruz, Mexico, waiting to hear from her recruiter on when she can get to Maryland.

While she wants to work, she said in Spanish: “Without our health, we can’t do anything and we are talking about a virus that is very contagious. That’s the most worrying thing right now.”

The U.S. Department of Labor received applications for nearly 100,000 visas in a lottery in January. In Maryland, Old Salty’s Seafood and Russell Hall Seafood on Hoopers Island, and J.M. Clayton Seafood were approved for a limited number. Old Salty’s got 14 workers and J.M. Clayton got nearly 30. Russell Hall owner Harry Phillips did not respond to questions.

But guest workers for more than a half-dozen other Maryland crab businesses — including Lindy’s, where Garcia has worked — are in limbo. That’s because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced April 2 that no additional H-2B worker visas were being released because of economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus.

Republican President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he had signed an executive order pausing immigration into the United States for 60 days to aid the economy. That didn’t appear to affect seasonal work visas, and crab processing plant operators remained hopeful that the H-2B program could resume before long, said Bill Seiling, executive vice president of the seafood industry association.

“It’s all chaos,” said Melva Guadalupe Vazquez, a 29-year-old mother of two who relies on the work each crab season to support her family in central Mexico. She remains there now, awaiting word on when she can travel.

Mexico has had more than 9,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 850 deaths. Maryland, meanwhile, has recorded more than 14,700 confirmed cases. As of Wednesday, Maryland attributed 631 deaths to the disease, and an additional 67 deaths are suspected to be due to the virus.

Worker advocates are concerned that critical care options and infectious disease specialists are less available in rural areas, and that the pickers may face wrenching choices.

“The women are often caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Thurka Sangaramoorthy, a cultural and medical anthropologist and an infectious disease expert at the University of Maryland, College Park. “They need to be able to produce and meet the quotas to be able to come back.

"When they do get sick, they often feel like they need to continue to work to meet those demands,” said Sangaramoorthy, who has studied immigration on Hoopers Island and elsewhere on the shore. “If they do come, then we are looking at living conditions in really close proximity.”

Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that advocates for migrant workers’ rights, has written a letter to federal agencies calling on the U.S. government to provide all migrant workers with more protections.

“They are uniquely vulnerable to acquiring and transmitting COVID-19, and will face many barriers in accessing care and support,” the letter states.


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