by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
The Gulf Seafood Institute’s (GSI) Executive Director Margaret Henderson was quoted by Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze in a comprehensive article on H-2B legislation recently passed in the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Bill – Maryland seafood survives another round on guest worker program.
The new legislations, championed by Maryland’s retiring Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, includes fixes for correcting the Labor Department and Department of Homeland Security’s implementation of the crucial returning guest worker program.
Fritze points out that labor unions, civil rights groups — and, increasingly, political conservatives — have taken aim at the program that brings tens of thousands of seasonal workers to the country annually, including for the crab-picking and oyster-shucking seasons, with critics saying companies could fill the jobs with U.S. workers if they were willing to pay higher wages, and some immigrant advocates say the program is exploitative.
Mikulski, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has for years been instrumental in protecting the program, defying labor and the Obama administration. She is not seeking re-election next year.
“This whole industry is hanging by a thread,” Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, told Fritze. The guest worker program is vital for the state’s roughly 15 remaining processors. “The companies that we have left are truly the survivors.”
Who will lead the legislative effort for the seafood industry when Mikulski steps down in 2017. The only Gulf representative sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee is Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.
The provisions of the current spending bill that includes the H-2B legislation will expire at the end of September, just ahead of a presidential election.
“We’re under no illusion that 2016 is going to be a great year to get things passed into law,” Henderson told the Sun reporter. “Senator Mikulski has been an absolute champion on this. We’re going to have to groom some new champions.”