by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Dr. Charles William Boustany, Jr. has always been a champion for the Gulf seafood community in the U.S. Congress. The five-term Representative serving south central Louisiana grew up with Gulf seafood playing an important part of his family life, and he works tirelessly to ensure that it remains an important part of Louisiana and the Gulf’s culture.
One of ten siblings born to Charles, Sr. and Madlyn Boustany, Saturday night was seafood night growing up in Lafayette.
“My fondest memories of eating Gulf seafood goes to Saturday night sitting around the table with my nine brothers and sisters eating boiled crabs,” said Boustany in an exclusive interview with Gulf Seafood News in his Capitol Hill office. “Saturday night was always very informal at home. Dad would run off and get God knows how many dozens of boiled crabs to feed our hungry bunch. He would just pour those crabs down on the table in the kitchen, and we would all just have at it.”
The Representative said that no matter how many crabs his dad brought home, there was nothing left when the family finished.
“My father was the most expert crab picker I have ever seen,” he said. “Not a single sliver of crab meat was ever left when he would pick a crab. He would fuss at us if we were sloppy at our picking efforts.”
Little would he realize his early days in the Cajun heartland learning the importance of properly picking crabs and other seafood, would lead to his legislative efforts to keep those industries a vital part of the Gulf’s economy years later.
As seafood processor after seafood processor closed their doors along the Gulf due to a shortage of H-2B guest worker laborers, Boustany took the lead on Capitol Hill to ensure those workers would be once again available at the crucial times needed by each seafood company.
“The H-2B visa program is vital for our seafood industry because we cannot get enough local workers to come in on a temporary basis to fill these jobs,” said the senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “These guest workers come in on a very short time line to fill positions when the need is high. They support our seafood industry, as well as American jobs.”
The Bayou State Representative reached across the aisle to work with Democrats to ensure important H-2B visa provisions were included in the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, the annual funding deal that included important relief for seasonal seafood, tourism and restaurant employers around the Gulf and across the country.
Fixes for the H-2B visa program went into effect immediately and included language exempting returning H-2B visa guest workers from the annual cap of 66,000, allowing the use of Private Wage Surveys (PWS), defining “Seasonal” as no more than ten months, preventing the Department of Labor from implementing the 3/4 wage guarantee, and allowing staggered crossings for seafood workers whose employers need more flexibility in bringing workers across the border.
Lawmakers, including Boustany, who fought for these provisions have faced an onslaught of criticism from fellow Republicans, anti-immigration and labor groups.
According to the former cardiovascular surgeon who has more than 30 years of clinical experience, without these workers we have a seafood industry that will suffer. “Our seafood processors cannot meet the demand for Gulf seafood, not only of our state but also the rest of the country, without these changes. Louisiana is a prominent part of the seafood industry in the United States, and it must remain that way,” he explained.
“Over and above the artificial cap put on the program, there used to be a returning worker provision in H-2B legislation that allowed guest workers to come back to the same business if they had worked there the last three years,” explained Boustany on why the new legislation was needed. “That provision was taken away several years ago. What we did was reinstate that provision and ensure that it is very carefully regulated by law.”
The father of two explained that that employers must go through a number of steps to ensure there are no local workers to fill the temporary need. In addition, the law ensures the wage structure does not compete with existing wage structures locally.
“This is not immigration,” he said, about the program that is often misunderstood by the American public as a gateway to the U.S. “The problem is that it gets confused with immigration. What we have done is passed legislation to get a one-year reprieve to allow the guest worker program to fill positions for the course of this fiscal year while we work on permanent legislation that will reinstate the retuning worker provision with a long-term law because that program works very well.”
Industries across the Gulf and the U.S., like seafood, tourism and agriculture, are dependent upon this labor force.
“We have some very prominent seafood industries in Louisiana. Those that use this program, be it in the seafood industry and processing, the rice and sugar mills or the hotels and casinos, these workers are vital for the growth of our state economy. It is important for the employer, and those that are involved with these industries in local communities, to communicate the importance of the program through opinion pieces in local newspapers, and push-back on those that misunderstand the program,” he said from his Longworth office. “Whether you are in Crowley, or Beaux Bridge, or anywhere across the Gulf coast, this is an important issue needed to support our seafood, and other vital industries. These are jobs that are typically temporary and cannot be filled with the local workforce. Without them we start to lose our seafood industry, as well as a lot of our agricultural base.”
H-2 B employers are subject to prevailing wage surveys that ensure that the program does not undercut the local work force. Employers are required to advertise available jobs for a set period of time prior to hiring visa workers to make sure Americans know there are temporary job openings available.
Boustany said the private wage analysis provides the public assurance that these temporary workers from other countries are not undercutting the pay received by the local workforce, as well as providing important data for the Department of Labor.
Unfortunately, the late passage of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill in 2015 gave little relief to the state’s decimated crawfish peeling industry. Only a handful of crawfish processors would receive workers in time for the season.
“We need to keep a close watch on what the Department of Labor is doing. We have had communication with them to ensure that they are following what Congress expected in this change in law,” said the Lafayette lawmaker. “It is important for our office to hear from individuals like Frank Randol in Lafayette, and groups like the Gulf Seafood Institute, as problems arise. We expect this to work very smoothly, if there are any hiccups then I want to know.”
Sitting on the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Trade, Boustany focuses on international economic affairs and has become a strong voice on matters of foreign and domestic trade to expand markets and business opportunities for U.S. produced goods and services, including seafood. He seeks to promote an atmosphere of job creation while maintaining American competitiveness.
The Preventing Recurring Trade Evasion and Circumvention Act, or PROTECT Act, was recently signed into law by the President. It provides U.S. Customs and Border Protection increased cooperation and accountability tools to stop trade evasion, a practice hurting American industries like seafood and agriculture.
“The PROTECT Act is a very important piece of legislation that I authored,” said the Congressman proudly. “It is a key component of our U.S. Custom’s reauthorization. The legislation has some very important elements that give the tools to Customs and Border Patrol to stop a wide variety of abuses on goods coming in and out of our country, especially seafood being dumped into our country or harvested using slave labor.”
According to the Congressman, foreign countries continue to dump cheap shrimp into U.S. markets undercutting local shrimpers, especially those in the Gulf. “It is a hard practice to police, especially after the shrimp gets into our marketplace. The tools I have created in the PROTECT ACT allow Customs and Border Patrol to take a forward leaning approach to stop this shrimp, as well as other contraband, before it enters our boarders. The idea is to help stop these abuses cold,” he said.
He told Gulf Seafood News the legislations also addresses the longstanding injuries to the crawfish industry by Chinese and other foreign competitors who have dumped crawfish into our markets. The U.S. government never paid the Louisiana crawfish processors the interest earned on penalties awarded to the industry.
“That interest will now be paid with the passage of the PROTECT Act,” he said. “When foreign businesses abuse our trade laws, American jobs and consumers suffer. We need fair trade laws to stop these illegal practices and protect American businesses. Gulf seafood is finally being given a fair shot to compete in our own marketplace.”
Great Future for Gulf Seafood
A longtime fisherman who doesn’t get on the water as much as he would like, Boustany loves speckle trout and snapper.
“I think the seafood industry has done a very good job of marketing. We have to continue the marketing effort of our Gulf seafood in terms quality, flavor and the high standards that are in place. It is an important part of our culture. We have to seize every opportunity to market our seafood, not only throughout the United States, but worldwide.”
He feels every effort needs to be made to promote this vital industry that supplies seafood for the entire U.S., and potentially worldwide. To do this he is committed to keeping the business environment amenable, without harsh and undue regulations, to keep the Gulf seafood industry vibrant and growing. “We need to continue to ensure that our seafood industry is playing on level terms with foreign competitors,” he said.
In addition, he feels Louisiana and other Gulf States need explore all options to produce the high quality seafood for which the Gulf is known.
“Louisiana and the Gulf is tailor made to participate in aquaculture, whether it is in the oyster industry, shrimping or fisheries. This is an untapped opportunity that could yield great benefits to all Gulf seafood industries,” said the Bayou born Congressman.
When asked his favorite Gulf seafood he responded, “Wow, that’s a tough one. I love boiled crab, I love shrimp, I love oysters anyway I can get them from fried to raw and anything in between. And I certainly love red snapper and speckled trout.”
But after further consideration it came down to one dish.
“My mother made the best crawfish etouffee on the planet,” he remembered fondly. “She had a secret recipe that was absolutely wonderful. She always used to ask what I wanted for my birthday, and my answer would always be the same, ‘I want crawfish etouffee and French bread’.”
Boustany feels the Gulf seafood industry is one of the bright spots of not only his state, but also the region. “It is so connected to our culture, who we are, I think there is a tremendous growth opportunity in our seafood industry if we can successfully deal with the problems that are out there, he said. “I think we have a pretty good understanding of the balance between our commercial fishing and recreational fishing. I hope we can keep that balance because it is an important part of who we are. I am confident we can find a way to successfully deal with the issues.”