by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Congress has passed and President Obama has signed into law a year-end spending and tax deal that includes important relief for seasonal seafood, tourism and restaurant employers around the Gulf and across the country. For more than a year, the Gulf Seafood Institute has joined with dozens of small business stakeholders to fight for the fixes included in H-2B legislation which will go into effect immediately.
“Lawmakers who fought for these provisions have faced an onslaught of criticism from anti-immigration and labor groups, ” said Margaret Henderson the Executive Director of GSI. “It is very appropriate for everyone to take few minutes to thank them for recognizing the importance of the H-2B program to seasonal seafood employers in the Gulf.”
The new legislation includes H-2B provisions to:
- Exempt returning H2B guest workers from the annual cap of 66,000
- Allow use of Private Wage Surveys (PWS)
- Define “Seasonal” as 10 months
- Prevent the Department of Labor from implementing the 3/4 wage guarantee
- Allow staggered crossings for seafood workers who need flexible times to enter U.S.
“The U.S seafood industry is critical for jobs on the Eastern and Western Shores, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the Vice Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I have consistently fought for an approach to the H-2B program that recognizes that one size does not fit all, protects the jobs and wages of workers, and provides the certainty small businesses need to survive. From harvesting crabs to shucking oysters, temporary and seasonal workers ensure the U.S. seafood industry continues to prosper well into the future. For every one H-2B visa granted, four American jobs are created. My top priority is jobs.”
Seafood processors along the Gulf coast rely on seasonal foreign workers admitted to the U.S under the H-2B visa program to fill the most labor-intensive positions in the industry. The work done by these temporary, unskilled workers is vital in the support of thousands of other supply chain jobs held by U.S. workers. In addition, restaurateurs and hospitality companies depend on these workers to fill positions during peak season.
The seasonal workers, mainly from Mexico, depend on these positions to sustain a higher quality of life back home. Often numerous family members will work for the same company year-after-year.
GSI Leader in Gulf H-2B Efforts
“GSI and our members have joined more than 950 other organizations and companies around the U.S. to communicate with Congress on these H-2B visa concerns throughout 2015,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a GSI Mississippi Board Member and manager of Crystal Seas Seafood in Pass Christian. We have sent letters, held face to face meetings, worked with state agencies on sending their own letters, helped coordinate site visits by Congressional staff down to seafood processing plants on the Gulf Coast, and coordinated round table discussions with top-ranking Administration officials to discuss specific concerns.”
“The Mississippi seafood industry has used the H-2B program to supply labor when businesses are unable to fill the jobs locally. Several of the visa workers have been returning to the same employers for years, and I was happy to work with Sen. Thad Cochran, our Congressional delegation and the Gulf Seafood Institute to provide stability in the H-2B worker program,” said Jamie Miller, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
GSI Founding Member Frank Randol, told Gulf Seafood News the that GSI’s work with the Louisiana delegation’s leadership, especially Senator Bill Cassidy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, was vital in helping them understand the importance of correcting the Labor Department and Department of Homeland Security’s implementation of the crucial returning guest worker program.
“Crawfish processors have the earliest need and were severely affected last year. Hopefully the government agencies will promptly alter their procedures to avoid a repeat of the 2014-2015 disaster,” said Randol, a seafood processor and owner of Randol’s Restaurant in Lafayette. “Government agencies have ignored the clear Congressional intent as well as recent court decisions. These provisions restore the program to the way it used to work at least through September.”
The appropriations fixes in the new legislation are temporary, but according to Henderson, GSI will continue to work on permanent solutions to these labor challenges in 2016. Permanent solutions are incorporated in stand-alone legislation recently introduced in the House and Senate. “Preservation of the H-2B visa program will be a top issue as our members “Walk on the Hill” in Washington next month,” she said.
Henderson explained GSI will continue to support a long-term solution, such as the SEASON Act in the House, and the Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act in the Senate which have broad support from the Gulf Congressional Delegation, including the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, Senator Cassidy and bill cosponsor Rep. Charles Boustany in the House.