H-2B crabpickers are so important to the Maryland seafood industry that they get paid $3 less per hour than the state or local average wage

Earlier this week, Washington D.C.’s WAMU aired a report highlighting—and celebrating—the hardworking Mexican women on Maryland’s Eastern Shore who pick crabmeat by hand. The Mexican women are in the United States temporarily, on a nonimmigrant guestworker visa called H-2B, which allows employers to hire migrant workers for non-agricultural seasonal jobs. The subheading of the story reads “Maryland crab processors say they couldn’t stay in business without Mexican guestworkers.” A tweet with an accompanying GIF from WAMU suggests that the reason employers hire H-2B workers to pick crab is because they’re so fast at what they do.

Impressive to say the least. I don’t doubt how productive and valuable these workers are. Their bosses say they’re the heart of the crab industry. But upon closer inspection, it seems the seafood companies don’t really think this important work is worth a fair wage. The companies have lobbied tenaciously to make sure that the legal and regulatory framework of the H-2B visa program allows them to legally underpay their workers compared to what they would have to pay to attract workers in the free market—and the two employers featured in the WAMU story are perfect examples.

Maryland crab is delicious, if you can afford it. At $30 to $50 per pound, it’s certainly not cheap. That’s why I was curious to know just how much these H-2B workers were valued by their employers. I looked up the H-2B disclosure data from the Department of Labor (DOL) for two of the seafood processors highlighted in the WAMU report, Russell Hall Seafood and G.W. Hall and Sons. According to those records, in fiscal 2017, DOL certified 50 H-2B jobs for Russell Hall Seafood and 30 for G.W. Hall and Sons.

According to WAMU, the H-2B workers are paid $9.50 an hour. The DOL data list the wages employers promise to pay their H-2B workers, and indeed both promised to pay $9.51 an hour for the 2017 season. If this seems too low for this grueling work—work that requires especially talented and fast workers from Mexico—that’s because it is.

All of the labor certifications for these 80 H-2B workers were classified under the occupational title of “Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers,” which is one of the top H-2B occupations every year. According to DOL survey data, the national average wage for this occupation is $12.27 per hour, and the Maryland statewide average wage is $13.32 per hour. The $9.51 the two employers pay their H-2B workers is $3.81 less per hour than the statewide average wage. $9.51 is also lower than the local average wage, according to another database using the same DOL data set: the average wage for Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers in the “Upper Eastern Shore of Maryland nonmetropolitan area” is $12.87 per hour (see “Mean Wage (H-2B)” on this page). That means the local average wage for crabpicking is $3.36 more per hour than what Russell Hall Seafood and G.W. Hall and Sons pay their H-2B guestworkers. $9.51 per hour isn’t even much more than the current Maryland state minimum wage of $8.75 per hour.

How are employers allowed to pay such low wages to their H-2B workers? At the very end of the George W. Bush administration, DOL changed the H-2B wage rules to allow employers to pay much lower-than-average wage rates. The rule was later found by a federal court to have been illegally promulgated, and Obama’s DOL proposed to fix this early in the administration with a rule that required employers to pay their H-2B workers the local average wage for every H-2B job (according to DOL wage survey data). The new rule also restricted the use of employer-conducted private wage surveys, which is another way to establish the minimum wage rate that must be paid to an H-2B worker. As you can imagine, employers never use private wage surveys so that they can pay their workers more—they only use them to lower the minimum wage they have to pay.

For nearly the rest of the Obama administration, H-2B employers managed to stop the wage rules from being enforced, both through litigation and by convincing Congress to defund DOL’s enforcement of the rules. Eventually, in April 2015, DOL and the Department of Homeland Security promulgated a new H-2B rule which required employers to pay the local average wage, and which included new, stricter rules for private wage surveys. But employers got around that again by lobbying successfully for a number of H-2B legislative riders in the fiscal 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, which included a provision expanding the use of private wage surveys. This provision was renewed in 2017, and the results so far have been unsurprising: wages are too low. According to my analysis, nationwide, the average wage employers promised to pay for the 5,447 H-2B jobs certified in Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers was $9.67 per hour. Since the national average hourly wage for all of the workers in that occupation is $12.27 per hour, that amounts to an average wage savings for employers of $2.60 per hour per worker, if they pay their workers via the H-2B wage rules rather than paying what they would have to pay to attract workers in the free market.

Russell Hall Seafood and G.W. Hall and Sons have benefited from the private wage survey rules and appropriations riders directly. According to DOL disclosure data, both had private wage surveys approved that allowed them to pay $8.61 per hour in 2016 and $9.51 in 2017; much lower than the local average wage of $12.87. Russell Hall Seafood and G.W. Hall and Sons were also at the forefront of pushing wages down for H-2B workers—having complained publicly over the years that attempts to increase H-2B wage rates would put them out of business. In two news reports from 2011, they argued that paying their H-2B crabpickers more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would put them out of business. Well now they’re paying $9.50 and seem to be doing just fine.

The quick, talented women who come from Mexico on H-2B visas to pick crabmeat in Maryland deserve to be paid $3 to $4 dollars more per hour—at least the local or state average wage for the jobs they do. And who knows? At $13 an hour, maybe some Maryland residents would want to give crabpicking a try, just as they did before the H-2B visa was created.