Shrimper shortage: Lack of foreign workers puts industry in bind

PORT ISABEL — The Texas shrimp industry, struggling for years against high fuel prices and cheap foreign imports, faces a new crisis: a major shortage of the temporary foreign workers that boat owners and processing plants depend on to operate.

The shortage is the result of Congress not renewing the H-2B Returning Worker Program when it expired at the end of September. Congress created the exemption in 2015 to help industries like seafood, landscaping and hospitality fill essential jobs.

The exemption was established after the government in 2005 instituted an annual cap of 66,000 H-2B foreign worker visas, in response to a surge in H-2B applications from employers since the program started during the late 1980s. The cap is divided equally among the two halves of the fiscal year — 33,000 the first half and 33,000 the last.

As part of the H-2B application process, the government requires employers first to advertise the jobs to U.S. workers. In the case of the shrimp industry, however, it’s very difficult to find U.S. workers willing to do the work.

The Rio Grande Valley’s shrimp industry increasingly has had to rely on shrimp boat workers from Mexico, who tend to have experience and in some cases have worked on the same U.S. boats for two decades or more.

Now, though, everything has ground to a halt since the government announced in March that the H-2B visa cap for the second half of 2017 had been reached, leaving the Brownsville-Port Isabel shrimp fleet with a drastic shortage of crews just when it needs them to prepare for the start of the 2017 Texas shrimp season, which happens in mid-July.

The current season closes May 15, though most boats are docked for maintenance because shrimp harvests are typically meager this time of the year.

Lee Caddell, a Port Isabel-based shrimp boat owner, said his company’s fleet of nine boats has used 18 or 19 H-2B workers who return every year. If the exemption isn’t renewed, it will be a huge blow to the business, he said.

“If this isn’t fixed, several of those boats will not fish because we will not have crews for them,” Caddell said.

He said the idea that H-2B deprives Americans of jobs in the shrimp industry is “a crock.”

“They don’t exist,” he said. “Americans don’t want to do these jobs. Most shrimpers up and down the coast rely on this.”

Caddell said the returning workers “cause no problems whatsoever” and are the last group that should be locked out. He said he finds it especially galling that out of the problems the shrimp industry faces, this one is so fixable.

“They pay their taxes, they break no laws and these guys are honestly doing jobs we can’t find anyone else to do,” Caddell said. “It does not cost Americans jobs, period. If we can find Americans that want to come and do these jobs, then we would be thrilled to have them.”

Ida Rivera, a bookkeeper with Caddell’s company, Bodden & Caddell Inc., said another reason it’s hard to fill shrimp jobs with U.S workers is the long weeks crews have to spend at sea, plus the fact that they’re not eligible for benefits and can’t file for unemployment.

In the rare instance when a U.S. citizen has responded to a job announcement, he hasn’t followed through, she said.

“I had one guy,” Rivera said. “I called him. He didn’t show up.”

Jorge Gonzalez Jr., a Brownsville-based shrimp fleet operator, comes from a shrimping family and has been around shrimp boats since he was 3 years old. Many of the Mexican shrimpers who come over on visas each year also come from shrimping families, and that experience is valuable to fleet owners, Gonzalez said.

“They’re not scared of hard work,” he said. “They come to make money, and better themselves and better their families’ situation. It’s a plus for them, and it’s a plus for us.”

Gonzalez said he loves what he does for a living and thinks Gulf shrimp is the best tasting in the world, though he admitted it’s going to be a tough season if the returning worker exemption isn’t reinstated. A manpower shortage cuts into how much shrimp can be harvested, which is obviously damaging to business, he said.

“Some (boats) won’t be able to fish,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to try to get out there, but we might just have a skeleton crew.”

Andrea Hance, executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association, said her organization has teamed up with the “big guys,” Maryland-based American Seafood Jobs Alliance, to press the issue in Congress with a louder voice.

“It’s probably one of the most complicated issues that I’ve been in the middle of,” she said.

Hance, also a shrimp boat owner, said the returning worker exemption has become “tangled up perception-wise with immigration.” Despite what some people believe, fleet owners aren’t passing over U.S. workers so they can get foreign workers for less money, she said.

Hance said boat owners pay $1,500 to $2,000 for each H-2B worker who is approved and have to deal with a mountain of paperwork. The occasional U.S. worker who is hired for a shrimp job usually doesn’t last, she said.

“We have to spend our money to train them, and less than 1 percent of the U.S. workers that we train to put on boats will make a full trip,” she said. “They’ll want off the boat in one or two weeks.”

H-2B workers account for about 40 percent of Texas shrimp industry employees, she said.

“This is probably one of the most devastating things we’ve ever been faced with,” Hance said.

Local shrimpers are organizing to lobby their political representatives on the issue. A group of representatives with the industry met with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela on March 31 in Brownsville to present a petition. Vela said after the meeting that he had just recently learned of the problem and isn’t sure whether political opposition or simple neglect is why the exemption wasn’t renewed, though he intends to find out.

Vela said he signed an appropriations letter to try to get the exemption language back in, and a few days ago put his name on a bill to solve the problem. He said he’s been talking to colleagues with constituents affected by the issue — Rep. Blake Farenthold for instance — to try to get their support for the exemption. That effort will continue when Vela returns to the Capitol next week, he said.

Vela noted that passing a bill is far from easy, requiring a majority of 435 members. Success in this case depends on getting enough key members to push support reinstating the exemption, an issue that affects a number of industries, he said.

“This is the way it’s supposed to work,” Vela said. “Your constituents call you when they have a problem. They started calling this week, and that’s when we started looking into it.”