GRASONVILLE, Md. — For every pound of raw oysters he pries out of their shells, Alfredo Leal Gonzalez makes one dollar. But he prefers to think in pesos. So one pound is 16 pesos, and 15 years of oyster-shucking is one house, one car, two school tuitions in Tlaxcala, Mexico.
Three months a year is how often Leal Gonzalez goes back there. From October to June, he lives with other seasonal migrant workers in a crowded and dilapidated house in this Eastern Shore town, turning piles of knobby black shells into buckets of shimmering flesh.
It’s work made possible for Leal Gonzalez by the H-2B visa program, which for 25 years has brought foreign laborers into the United States for seasonal jobs, including crab-picking and oyster-shucking. While those industries are far from the biggest in the visa program, they are iconic in Maryland.
In April, the Labor Department launched new regulations for the H-2B visa program — requiring better wages, sufficient hours and stricter oversight — at the urging of workplace advocates and over the objections of employers, who say the requirements could force them out of business.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is trying to come to the companies’ rescue.
The Maryland Democrat is known as a progressive champion, but on this issue, she is siding with employers, spurred by a desire to protect her state’s seafood companies at a time when pollution, warming water and competition from companies in Southeast Asia have taken a toll.
She has proposed legislation to overturn the new regulations and has helped craft appropriations language that would defund the Labor Department’s ability to enforce its new rules. It could be one of Mikulski’s last battles before she retires from the Senate next year after five terms in office.
“Maryland’s seafood industry is critical for jobs on the Eastern Shore and for our way of life,” Mikulski, who declined to be interviewed, said in a statement. “Our seafood businesses deserve a government on their side.”
The seafood industry is far from the biggest user of the visa program that the new regulations target. Nationally, 42,104 visas were requested this year for workers in landscaping and groundskeeping, according to the Labor Department, compared with 2,822 visas for workers in meat and fish processing. In Maryland, there are fewer than a dozen seafood companies using the program, employing about 200 workers overall.
But Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress, sees the visa program as essential to oyster and crab producers and is determined to ensure that the program suits employers’ needs.
“Historically, this has been a real source of challenge in working with her,” said Shannon Lederer of the AFL-CIO. “She’s very much persuaded by the industry that they cannot survive if they’re forced to pay decent wages and make basic guarantees.”
A 2010 study of Maryland crab-pickers, done by American University and a migrant workers’ rights group that operates in Baltimore, found that many worked for low wages in substandard conditions and ended up in debt, in part because of high fees they paid to recruiters who connected them with employers. They are barred by the visa program from seeking other source of income.
Before the Labor Department’s new rules, temporary workers often didn’t get enough hours to make ends meet, said Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a workers rights group.
The regulations guarantee more hours for workers — the equivalent of a 35-hour workweek, on average, for at least three-quarters of the specified length of the employment contract. The Labor Department, rather than employers, determines the local prevailing wage in almost all instances. Companies must pay workers every two weeks and cover visa fees and the cost of food and transportation to and from the United States.
Employees who complain about conditions are specifically protected from retaliation. And employers must prove that before turning to the visa program, they have advertised extensively for workers in the United States — a long-standing requirement that in the past was not closely enforced.
All those rules are putting too much pressure on an already-struggling industry, according to the veteran shellfish purveyors of the Eastern Shore.
“It was a perfect program,” said Jason Ruth, owner of Harris Seafood, where Leal Gonzalez works. “Now . . . it’s almost not feasible.”
The required minimum wages, he argued, don’t work for a business defined by an unpredictable ocean. Ruth said the hourly pay he is supposed to guarantee has jumped more than $4 in the past year, from $8.90 to $13.72, because the government lumps his Queen Anne’s County company in with the D.C. market, rather than with shuckers farther south.
Jack Brooks of J.M. Clayton Seafood, who leads the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said it is a waste of time and money to force employers to advertise for U.S. workers because most Americans do not want these jobs.
The handful of locals whom Ruth still employs, all in their 50s and 60s, agree.
“It’s like a dying art here,” said Chrissy Brown, a 59-year-old shucker from Chester, Md., who is one of the few U.S. citizens and even fewer women on Ruth’s line. “The younger generation doesn’t want to do this.”
Brown has been on bivalves since she was 14, unusual in an industry where men tend to shuck oysters while women pick crab. Her family used to work with her, but her mother has retired and her sister moved away.
Leal Gonzalez, by contrast, has his whole family around him. His father was the first to come from Tlaxcala; he and his brothers, cousins and other relatives followed.
“I had nothing when I started,” said Gustavo Leal, one of the brothers. “And now everything I have is thanks to this job.”
Brooks said Mikulski has come to bat for the industry before, helping to delay the Labor Department regulations and intervening at other times to make sure the companies had access to the visas they need. Now, he said, they need her help again.
“It’s a program that works, but it’s become very, very difficult,” Brooks said. “What Senator Mikulski has done for us is the reason that there is a remaining seafood industry left in the bay.”
If Mikulski’s legislation wins passage in Congress, it could be vetoed by President Obama, normally a Mikulski ally but also a strong supporter of the Labor Department rules. Either way, the battle over the program will probably grind on well past Mikulski’s retirement.
While a handful of Republicans have entered the race to succeed her, the two declared Democratic contenders, Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, are considered more likely to capture the Senate seat. The primary is April 26.
Both politicians are trying to claim Mikulski’s mantle as a powerful progressive. Yet, like the sitting senator, each appears reluctant to side with critics of the seafood industry.
Asked about H-2B visas, Edwards called for comprehensive immigration reform to ensure that the program “does not become a pathway for unprotected work.” Van Hollen said he would review Mikulski’s legislation, hailing the senator as “a longtime advocate for Maryland’s seafood industry.”
The AFL-CIO already has begun discussions with both candidates, Lederer said.
“We are definitely looking to what’s going to come next,” she said.
Arelis Hernández contributed to this report.