May 15, 2020

Cardin, Van Hollen Urge Trump Administration to Provide Relief for Seafood Industry

Fixes Include Protecting Workers and Addressing Labor Shortages with the H-2B Visa Program

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-Md.), along with U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-Va.) and Congressman Robert Wittman (R-Va.) have sent a bipartisan letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, urging him to help Maryland and Virginia’s seafood industries resolve current labor shortages by issuing or re-allocating additional H-2B visas, while protecting the health and safety of seafood workers per CDC guidelines.

The lawmakers note the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to help this critical sector of our regional economy, stating, “As with other small American businesses, the seafood processors and producers in our states face new economic uncertainties due to COVID-19.  Despite declining demand brought on by the pandemic, we are encouraged to hear early reports from our states that the demand for seafood could begin to increase in the near future.”

In March, following a letter from Senators Cardin and Van Hollen and Cardin, DHS announced it would provide immediate relief to the seafood industry by releasing additional H-2B visas. However, DHS has since gone back on this decision.

The lawmakers criticize this about-face, which has thrown the seafood industry into uncertainty, writing, “on April 2, 2020, the Department announced via Twitter that the rule on the H-2B cap is “on hold pending review due to present economic circumstances.  No additional H2B visas will be released until further notice.”  Due to the delayed rule and subsequent lack of visas, our states’ seafood operations, which create numerous year-round American jobs, are in jeopardy yet again.  Without the necessary H-2B workers, these seasonal businesses will be forced to scale back operations, cancel or default on contracts, lay off full-time U.S. workers and, in some cases, close operations completely.”

The lawmakers call for specific fixes to the H-2B program while prioritizing the health and safety of workers and employers, concluding, “We urge you to expeditiously reallocate any unused H-2B visas to the seafood industry, deemed essential to the country’s critical infrastructure.  We further urge you to work with the Departments of Labor, State, and Health and Human Services to ensure the necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of both H-2B workers and the communities in which they work and live.  It is vital that the agencies with responsibility for administering the H-2B program work in concert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local officials to ensure that the necessary safeguards, including the ability to effectively social distance, are in place and clearly communicated with workers in their native language. Both employers and workers should be given the tools they need to reduce community spread. It is also important that workers are made aware of the health care systems available and given access to care.”

The full text of the letter follows.

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf:

We write on behalf of the Virginia and Maryland seafood industry, which continues to struggle with seasonal labor shortages due to a lack of H-2B visas.  In these unprecedented times, we write to ask that you consider all possible options to ensure seasonal seafood producers and processors have the necessary H-2B workers to carry out their operations while helping to maintain our country’s food supply.  These solutions could include, but are not limited to, redistributing any unused statutorily authorized H-2B visas to the seafood industry. 

As with other small American businesses, the seafood processors and producers in our states face new economic uncertainties due to COVID-19.  Despite declining demand brought on by the pandemic, we are encouraged to hear early reports from our states that the demand for seafood could begin to increase in the near future. 

On March 5, 2020, after much urging from Congress, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its decision to release an additional 35,000 H-2B temporary nonagricultural worker visas.  We anticipated that this move would benefit Virginia’s and Maryland’s seafood industry, communities largely made up of rural, family-owned operations. 

However, on April 2, 2020, the Department announced via Twitter that the rule on the H-2B cap is “on hold pending review due to present economic circumstances.  No additional H2B visas will be released until further notice.”  Due to the delayed rule and subsequent lack of visas, our states’ seafood operations, which create numerous year-round American jobs, are in jeopardy yet again.  Without the necessary H-2B workers, these seasonal businesses will be forced to scale back operations, cancel or default on contracts, lay off full-time U.S. workers and, in some cases, close operations completely.

Like H-2A workers who support agriculture in the United States, the Department has deemed seafood processors “essential, critical infrastructure.”  Any disruption to the food supply chain will harm American consumers, the seafood industry, and the U.S. economy. Precautionary measures are crucial to ensure we have a stable food supply flow.  Withholding H-2B visas for seasonal seafood processors will only exacerbate this matter. 

We urge you to expeditiously reallocate any unused H-2B visas to the seafood industry, deemed essential to the country’s critical infrastructure.  We further urge you to work with the Departments of Labor, State, and Health and Human Services to ensure the necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of both H-2B workers and the communities in which they work and live.  It is vital that the agencies with responsibility for administering the H-2B program work in concert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local officials to ensure that the necessary safeguards, including the ability to effectively social distance, are in place and clearly communicated with workers in their native language. Both employers and workers should be given the tools they need to reduce community spread. It is also important that workers are made aware of the health care systems available and given access to care. 

We thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this matter, as the viability of many businesses in our states depends on the H-2B program. We look forward to an ongoing dialogue with you and the Department about possible regulatory improvements to the H-2B program that can increase processing efficiency and predictability and maintain worker safety during this pandemic.

 

Sincerely,

 

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